NBA Bursted Bubble Pt. 2
This is Part Two of the Bursted Bubble series, where I look at the eight NBA teams that were not invited to the bubble. Part One covered the Warriors, Cavaliers, Timberwolves and Hawks and can be found right here. In part two, we’ll cover the Pistons, Knicks, Bulls and Hornets.
26. Detroit Pistons
13th in the East
Season Recap: The Detroit Pistons have fallen upon some rough times since the early 2000s, when they were a dominant force in the East. Those Detroit teams, led by Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Ben and Rasheed Wallace, and Tayshaun Prince provided some of the most memorable moments from the franchise aside from the Bad Boys era in the late 80s and early 90s.
From the 2001-2002 season to the 2007-2008 season, the Detroit Pistons made the playoffs all seven seasons, including two finals appearances. This era reached its golden age in the 2004 when Detroit capped a 54 win season by stomping the Lakers, led by Kobe and Shaq, in only five games to win the franchise’s third title.
Since the 2007-2008 season, however, the Pistons have made the playoffs only three times in 12 years, and have 0 playoff wins to show for it (running into LeBron and Giannis in the first round doesn’t bode well for your chances). In that time, they have only had one winning season and have been through seven head coaches.
This season didn’t appear to be the year that Detroit would turn it around, and they proved that to be the case rather quickly. After starting 19-34, the Pistons decided to begin their rebuild. The team traded the former face of the franchise, Andre Drummond, and went 1-12 the remainder of the season, signaling a change of direction for the organization. This included waiving NBA vets Reggie Jackson and Markieff Morris later that same month. The Pistons then spent the remainder of the season evaluating what they had on the roster in order to set their foundation for the desperately needed rebuild. Although the record may not have indicated it, this approach brought some sources of optimism for a team in need of such a thing.
Christian Wood, who is only 24 years old and joined his fifth team in four seasons, finally got his chance to be a consistent starter in the NBA and made it worth Detroit’s while. After the trade deadline, Wood started 12 out of the last 13 games and averaged 22.8 points and nearly 10 rebounds, both team highs during that stretch. The continued resurgence of Derrick Rose provided a sense of excitement for the team, as the former league MVP contributed just over 18 points per game and provided a solid veteran presence both on and off the court.
Seko Doumbouya also showed flashes of potential, including a 24 point outing against the Celtics, but he’ll need to work on his consistency and his shooting percentage in order to develop into the player the Pistons drafted him to be in 2019. These players, combined with the forever injured Blake Griffin, provide a solid cast to begin a rebuild but it still seems as if this organization has a ways to go before returning to former glory. It starts with the untradeable Griffin contract and trickles down to the player development of key pieces like Doumbouya and Luke Kennard.
Biggest Off-season Question: What will the rebuild look like? This question essentially boils down to how patient can a hurting franchise be during rebuilding mode. The Pistons are looking at around $30 million in cap space this year, making them a potential front runner for the top free agents in this year’s class. However, as I’ve previously noted in part one of this series, this free agent class may be a bit weaker than in recent years. So the Pistons have some options in terms of how they’d like to spend their first offseason as a total rebuilding team.
They could buy in this offseason and work to make the playoffs, or they could play it a bit more conservatively, opting for a longer rebuild with a potentially better long term outcome. They could do a variation of the two, it would just require some smart spending and some bargain shopping this offseason. When this team is healthy, they do have the makings of a playoff squad with quality vets such as Rose and Griffin as well as young and exciting talent like Kennard, Doumbouya and Wood.
But there does seem to be holes on their bench that need to be addressed in order for this team to consistently win games in this league. If this team can’t string together some wins to begin the season, they could also explore shipping out Rose to a contending team in order to free up cap space and acquire assets to set them up for a longer rebuild. The Pistons have options here, but they cannot afford to make the wrong move this offseason if they look to make some noise in the immediate future.
Reason for Optimism: Current Roster. When healthy, I believe the Pistons do have the talent to get into the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Once the Magic finally clinched the final playoff spot, the Pistons finished 9.5 games back from the eighth spot and only 2 games behind the Wizards, who made the bubble (even if it was ugly). A lineup consisting of Rose, Griffin, Wood, Kennard and Tony Snell/Doumbouya isn’t a squad that would take the league by storm, but if the young guys take a step forward in their development, it is a team that should compete in a weak Eastern Conference. Spending some of that $30 million this offseason could spruce up their bench, or add a pretty solid small forward to improve that starting lineup. They also have the 7th pick of the draft, where ESPN projects the team will take Tyrese Haliburton out of Iowa State. That adds another piece to a team that does have more talent than the typical bottom feeder, but it remains to be seen how healthy this team can be throughout the course of a season.
25. New York Knicks
12th in the East
Season Recap: Another season in the books for the New York Knick. And it’s nothing but another season without a playoff appearance. After losing out on the Kevin Durant sweepstakes last offseason to the other New York team, the Knicks were not poised to succeed this season. The team finished 21-45 to cap off their 7th straight losing season. The Knickerbockers also burnt through their 5th head coach since 2013 in the process. After a 4-18 start to the season, ending in two straight 30+ point losses, the team fired David Fizdale after just one full season. Things didn’t necessarily turn around after that, as the team went 17-27 after that mark, but it was clear the franchise was thinking further down the road anyway. After acquiring Marcus Morris in the offseason (which I’m still bitter about as a Spurs fan) the Knicks traded him to the Clippers right at the trade deadline, receiving Maurice Harkless, a 2020 1st round pick, a 2021 1st round pick, and a 2021 2nd round pick. This adds to the heap of 2021 and 2023 1st round picks that the organization received as part of the trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis to the Mavericks last year. These picks, as well as the young players headlining this team such as RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Julius Randle (all 25 or younger) show that the future is where the hope lies for this team. The plethora of picks also lessens the Knicks’s ability to tarnish their chance at acquiring franchise altering talent in the draft. These established young players also showed they provide a solid framework if the right pieces are surrounding them.
RJ Barrett had a productive rookie campaign as he averaged just over 14 points per game and displayed solid development as the season progressed. The front court of Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson led the team to finish T-6th in rebounds per game, which isn’t going to produce championships anytime soon but is a good starting point for a young team with postseason aspirations. After their season ended, the Knicks also went out and quickly addressed their head coaching vacancy by signing former coach of the year Tom Thibodeau to a five year deal. Thibodeau brings a reputation of hard-nose defensive minded basketball to a Knicks team searching for an identity among so many young players.
Biggest Off-season Question: How will the Knicks Handle their expiring contracts? How the Knicks decide to handle their own players’ “expiring” contracts will determine how much flexibility they have this offseason. The Knicks have five players that they could cut ties with and create a lot of cap room as a result.
Bobby Portis is on a team option contract this season, which means that the Knicks have the options to cut ties with him by October 17 in order to save $15.8 million, but Portis played all 66 games for the Knicks this season and averaged just over 10 points and 5 rebounds per game and is only 24 years old.
They also could buy out Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton, and Reggie Bullock and save around $25 million combined. Gibson, Ellington, and Payton are all set to make $8 million this year but all are guaranteed only $1 million, Bullock is set to make $4.2 million but is also only guaranteed $1 million.
Gibson is going on his 11th season and would provide a veteran presence both on and off the court, he also played for Thibodeau on two different teams in the past and could be valuable for integrating the new system. Ellington seems like a likely candidate to be bought out, he only played 36 games for the team last season and averaged 5 points on 35% shooting from the field. Payton is an interesting player because he’s been injured quite a bit during his young career, but the Knicks could do a lot worse at point guard when he’s healthy. Last season he led the team in steals (1.6) and assists (7.2) per game and was fifth on the team in points per game at 10.0. The Knicks also have a relatively crowded back court with Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. both playing point guard behind Payton.
Bullock also dealt with injuries last season, forcing him to miss 33 games, but the 28 year old averaged a decent 8.1 PPG on 40% shooting. Ultimately I believe the Knicks will cut ties with Ellington and Bullock to save some cap space and bring on more useful players for their roster. They also may decide to bring these five players on in order to trade their enticing expiring contracts to a contending team during the season. This seems most likely with Payton and Portis, as they could be the most useful for a team looking for a final few pieces to make a run.
Reason for Optimism: Assets. As the last two sections indicate, the Knicks have a variety of assets, from draft picks to expiring contracts, at their disposal. This provides some flexibility for the front office in terms of how they want to go about crafting their future. The immediate future includes three draft picks inside the top 38 (including the 8th pick overall), and the various expiring contracts. This could allow the Knicks to acquire some veteran presence for their relatively young core, while also being set up for the future with the picks acquired from the Clippers and Mavericks. If the Knicks decide to stay the course this offseason and not make many moves, that’s okay too, fans should just expect not to be a whole lot better next season.
This team could just keep their three draft picks, not part ways with any players and set themselves up for a more exciting offseason in 2021. This organization hasn’t had much success recently in luring big talent to come play at Madison Square Garden, but there is plenty of talent on this young team to inspire a big name to gravitate towards New York in the near future. The Knicks actually have a more exciting future than one might think, but it all comes down to how they manage their pieces.
24. Chicago Bulls
11th in the East
Season Recap: The Chicago Bulls just capped off their third consecutive season winning below 30 games and missing the playoffs, something that last happened immediately following the “Last Dance” season, starting in 1998-1999. This season, however, may have been the most disappointing of the current skid as the Bulls came into this season with much more hype surrounding them than in recent years. They didn’t have a very active offseason, but they went and acquired Tomas Satoransky from the Wizards as part of a sign and trade, and drafted Coby White with the 7th overall pick in last year’s draft. These pieces, along with the prolific scoring of Zach LaVine, the emergence of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter, and solid role players like Kris Dunn and Otto Porter seemed like enough for the Bulls to be far better than they ended up, so what happened? While the Bulls were pretty good on the defensive end, finishing 9th in defensive efficiency (number of points allowed per 100 possessions), they looked out of sync and just plain bad on offense, finishing dead last in offensive efficiency (number of points scored per 100 possessions).
Good defense typically translates into more efficient offense, especially when you have a player like Kris Dunn who finished the regular season second in steals per game, but the Bulls couldn’t get much going once they had the ball on offense. Some of this can be attributed to Markkanen’s failure to take a step forward this season after a promising 18.7 points per game the season before, and you can look at the lack of scoring options outside of LaVine and Markkanen as another reason why this team left much to be desired on that end of the court. However, I believe much of the blame should be put on recently fired head coach, Jim Boylen.
Yes, using the head coach as a scapegoat is very easy to do, which is why some teams cycle through coaches like it’s nothing, but it has been pretty obvious that Boylen wasn’t the answer for quite some time. The lack of structure on the offensive end was pretty apparent throughout the season. The absence of quality player development from Markkanen and Wendell Carter, especially with Carter’s shooting ability, fall pretty heavily on the coaching staff. Time after time Boylen would mismanage a game that would result in a Bulls loss. One of the best possible moves the Bulls could have made this offseason was to fire Boylen and they did exactly that.
I’m not saying that, with his departure, the Bulls are going to be a brand new team, but this organization could not afford to let so much promising talent waste away their time in a Bulls uniform playing for a coach that didn’t have any business in his position.
Biggest Offseason Question: Who do the Bulls hire now? Now that Jim Boylen is officially out as head coach, where will the Bulls go to fill that opening? This is an attractive position for any coach seeking to make a name for themself, as the Bulls provide an opportunity to coach a talented, young team that just hasn’t been able to reach its potential quite yet in one of the biggest markets it in the world.
After three straight losing seasons (and not advancing out of the first round of the playoffs in six seasons) the next head coach will face some pressure from a franchise that’s accustomed to winning, but the pieces are there to make it happen. It’s been reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that the organization is looking at assistants from this year’s playoff teams, including Milwaukee’s Darvin Ham, Denver’s Wes Unseld Jr. and Miami’s Dan Craig. Former Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson and Sixers assistant Ime Udoka are two names that have also been discussed for a number of vacant positions this offseason.
By firing Boylen early in the offseason, the Bulls have given themselves enough time to go about the interview and hiring process diligently, meaning that this selection could take some time, presumably into October depending on how the rest of the playoffs work out. Billy Donovan is another name to keep an eye on as this search continues on. Donovan recently parted ways with the Thunder in a move that came as a bit of a surprise as the team was one poorly executed possession away from advancing to the conference semifinals. Donovan led the Thunder to a surprising playoff bid and gave the Rockets all they could handle in the first round series that just wrapped up. Perhaps Donovan won’t want to take on another rebuild type task, but his name is already being linked to the Bulls and both parties could do a lot worse.
Reason for Optimism: Potential. Yes, that’s a pretty vague word to describe a reason for optimism, but there’s a lot to unpack there. Bulls fans should be excited about the potential of this team for a variety of reasons. To cap off this head coach discussion, there are plenty of names on the market that are more exciting than both Jim Boylen and Fred Hoiberg. Many of the assistants that the organization has been linked to are up and comers in the league, and Billy Donovan and Kenny Atkinson are established coaches that I would trust more than what the Bulls have had recently. Turning to the roster, I know that last season wasn’t as advertised, but I expect a bounce back from Markkanen and a step forward from Carter.
A long offseason dedicated to working on weak parts of their games should yield rather positive results, especially since we’ve already seen what Markkanen can do. Aside from those two, Zach LaVine is the closest thing to an all-star without actually being an all-star.
You could make the argument that he was snubbed last season, and maybe it had something to do with the Bulls’ record, but I expect around similar production next season. Coby White had a promising rookie season and received three votes for rookie of the year (which doesn’t seem like much, but Ja Morant had that race wrapped up pretty much the entire season). Looking ahead to the offseason, regardless of what the Bulls do during free agency, they have the fourth pick in the NBA draft.
In ESPN’s latest mock draft, that has them slated to take college player of the year Obi Toppin, an exciting prospect out of Dayton that would certainly add to the hype surrounding this team and add another playmaker to a team in need of more. Out of all of the teams in the Bursted Bubble series, I am most excited to see what the Bulls can become in the next few seasons, and thus “potential” feels like the most fitting word for why Chicago fans should feel optimistic.
23. Charlotte Hornets
9th in the East
Season Recap: The Charlotte Hornets are a far cry from where they were last offseason, which was highlighted by the loss of all-star point guard Kemba Walker. That move included the acquisition of Terry Rozier via a sign and trade, and it looked as if dark times were upon the city of Charlotte. The team had no cap space as a result of absurd contracts for players that didn’t deliver (Bismack Biyombo, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Marvin Williams), they had lost the face of their franchise with no heir apparent on their roster, and they had just finished off their third straight losing season.
Many, including myself, projected the Hornets to be historically bad going into a season that provided little reason for optimism. While this team still finished with a losing record in 2020 and missed the bubble, it actually felt very close to the best case scenario for a squad with seemingly no direction heading into the year. Not only did they finish 9th in the East as a result of a 1-7 showing by the Washington Wizards in the seeding games, but they still came away with the 3rd overall pick in this year’s draft and found a sense of direction in the process.
This new found sense of direction came in the form of my pick for the most improved player, Devonte’ Graham. After a rookie season that included a lot of time spent in the G-League and on the bench, Devonte’ Graham exploded onto the scene and provided new life for the Hornets in the post-Kemba era. After posting an average of 4.7 points per game in 46 total games with the Hornets his rookie season, the 24 year old took major strides this season while evolving into the face of the franchise, averaging 18.2 PPG as well as leading the team in assists with 7.5 per game.
What’s more is that there’s room for improvement with this rising star. While he did improve on his shooting numbers from the season before, he still only shot 38% from the floor, a number that will certainly be expected to rise if he wants to take the next step in his development. Aside from Graham, the rest of the roster also provided reason for excitement. Rookie PJ Washington and second year forward Miles Bridges proved to be solid contributors alongside Graham and the resurgence of Rozier, after a disappointing season in Boston, eased the minds of Hornet fans after what seemed to be another instance of the team overpaying for a player. The Hornets appear to be building something down in Charlotte, and with reasons to be optimistic for the first time in a while, I’m excited to see what they make of this opportunity.
Biggest Offseason Question: How will the Hornets fill out their roster? The Hornets are expected to have around $20 million in cap space this offseason, but GM Mitch Kupchak has indicated that the team doesn’t expect to be in the running for big name free agents, as they want to spend this offseason focused on the draft and on making smart trades. Being patient in the market is the best advice someone could have given the Hornets, after a series of bad free agent contracts led to the team being unable to sign more talent to keep Kemba around.
This team won’t make the same mistake twice, as they plan to wait to spend on free agents until 2021 when they could have around $70 million in cap space next season. The first order of business should be to extend Graham’s contract so they don’t have to focus on that next offseason when he’s a restricted free agent. Looking at the draft, the Hornets landed in the perfect position, as the third pick gives them a good shot to land Memphis big man James Wiseman, according to ESPN’s latest mock draft. The 7 foot, 250 pound Wiseman would fill a hole at center that is currently occupied by Cody Zeller. So the question then becomes how will the Hornets go about filling the rest of their roster?
They have two second round picks in this year’s draft, but they should look to target cheap veterans that can come off the bench and won’t interfere with the development of Graham, Washington and Bridges. They also could move a contract like Batum’s for a few players on another team since Batum is set to make $27 million next season and has an expiring contract. The key for Charlotte this offseason is to acquire complementary players that will allow for their young core to continue to grow and develop.
Reason for Optimism: Cap Space! I know I’ve already talked about this a little bit, but I cannot stress enough how important it is for this team to have cap space, even if they don’t plan to spend much this offseason. The Hornets have a history of offering mediocre players lucrative contracts (Rozier provided a promising season but this could be another example) and it has significantly hurt the franchise as of late. It’s the reason the organization was never able to provide Kemba with the help he deserved during his time in Charlotte. It also has kept them from being competitive for quite some time.
Contracts like Marvin Williams’ four year, $54.5 million in 2016 or Batum’s 5 year, $120 million in the same offseason were dreadful at the time and the aged even worse. However, now the franchise has a second chance as they were bailed out by their young stars just in the nick of time and it appears they won’t spoil it just yet. While it remains to be seen how they handle their insane cap space next season, the Hornets are doing all the right things as of now to set themselves up for a very promising future.