Each year, there can only be one champion. Which is cool in a romantic sense. It’s the pinnacle of competition. A band of players embark on the hero’s journey, tame that wild steed named Victory, and ride off into the champagne sunset. A banner gets hung in their honor, forever commemorating their triumph and flapping in the dusty breeze of an A/C vent.
In the #ringz culture, the rest of the teams ultimately don’t matter. Which is less romantic, but cool in a nihilistic sense, if you’re into that sorta thing. Every other franchise that falls by the wayside measures themselves not only against the champ, but the team that knocked them out. They spend the offseason making countermoves to build their rosters up to the stratum of contendership and fill the void of their exposed faults. Or they opt to tear it down, choosing instead the infinite promise of the unknown. Either way, losing initiates a causal nexus of change.
This season’s crop of first-round washouts features significant pieces that could wear new uniforms next season. While we’re still in the thick of the playoffs, it’s never too early to speculate on plausible deals for those eliminated. I come bearing suggestions.
After falling 0-2, Washington actually showed some fight against the top-seeded Raptors. But they’re ultimately a flawed bunch with limited options for improvement. They can find a taker for John Wall and shift the franchise focal point to Bradley Beal (feasible). Or they can double down by clogging their cap with slight upgrades for a team not good enough to win a championship, which will definitely happen since it’s the most-Wizards outcome. Hold this thought.
Miami’s never happy with the status quo. They fight for the present, but always keep a Machiavellian eye on the long game. For quite some time, Hassan Whiteside’s reputation around the league has been fraudulent. Now, he’s become a 7-foot anchor and hardly played against Philadelphia.
It’s tough envisioning a team wanting to trade for Whiteside given what he just showed and his massive contract. UNLESS there’s a team already cap-strapped with moveable pieces that’d see him as an upgrade.
Would a younger, better rim protector and rebounder cure what ills Washington? Well, it’s Whiteside, so probably not. But it’d be a start to improving a mediocre roster and mixing up their acrid chemistry.
Marcin Gortat is long in the tooth, but he comes off the books after next year. Ian Mahinmi is vastly overpaid, but knows his place and comes at around 60 percent of Whiteside’s cost. Besides, Bam Adebayo proved he’s a capable starter.
Tomas Satoransky showed himself to be a solid NBA player during Wall’s lengthy absence this season. Yet, for reasons still unexplained, the Wizards gave his playoff minutes to a freshly-imported-from-the-Chinese-league Ty Lawson. Eric Spoelstra’s known to get the most out of his players. If Washington sees Satoransky as expendable, he’d fit right in with the Heat’s assemblage of versatile guards.
Swapping him for Dion Waiters would give the Wizards a scoring punch off the bench and the Heat further cap flexibility — an asset more valuable in Miami than most NBA locales.
These division rivals represent each other’s best hope for getting rid of their headaches.
Times, they are a changin’:
Portland rounded out the year by securing the West’s 3-seed. The last time they finished that high was the 1999-00 season. For perspective, that season took place while I was in seventh grade and going through puberty. I’m now 30 years-old (though still might be going through puberty).
Over that same time frame, San Antonio’s been a stanchion of success and the benchmark of stability, led by hall-of-fame players, an all-time coach, and a thriving ecosystem. This season revealed uncharacteristic strife between the franchise and its best player. It’s looking increasingly-likely Kawhi Leonard gets traded over the summer.
The Trail Blazers held firm in the belief their high-octane backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum could bring playoff glory. While it’s been fun, getting waxed by the Pelicans in a first-round sweep should put to rest any delusions of serious title pursuit.
Prying away Leonard would give them the elite defensive maven they’ve always needed alongside Lillard. Assuming he’d come back to full health, Portland would move into the Western elite with Leonard leading the way.
Or maybe they’ll run everything back and blame their flameout on the Lil B curse.
The offers for Leonard are sure to be aplenty this offseason. Despite coming off a year of injury and tumult, Leonard’s a proven top-five player. At the very least, every franchise should carry out their due diligence and gauge the asking price.
Danny Ainge is the boogeyman looming over every trade discussion for a star, with a cache of assets to eclipse any deal. However, this offer would return solid value to the Spurs.
With McCollum, San Antonio lands one of the best scoring guards in the league and the dynamic force their current backcourt lacks. Offloading the questionable-at-the-time contract they handed Pau Gasol would be a boon, while the draft pick gives them another chance to mine a gem from the back-end of the first round.
Milwaukee has a budding supernova in Giannis Antetokounmpo, the perfect running-mate in Khris Middleton, and a slew of ancillary talent. Their biggest change should come at the coaching level, where they need to find someone to unlock the Bucks’ best lineup and playing style (hint: it’s Giannis at center, surrounded by shooters).
They took a big swing back in November and traded for Eric Bledsoe. The hope was his added talent would take them to a higher tier. Instead, Milwaukee never found its footing.
Bledsoe’s stat lines usually satiate, but he generally looks disengaged and doesn’t give the best effort on defense. Not to mention, he got cooked by Terry Rozier in the first round. Still, if they wanted to, Milwaukee could get a solid return if they decided to move on from him.
Minnesota is in a similar position; they have top-end talent, a rising star, and a bunch of complementary pieces. Aside from Tom Thibodeau changing his philosophy of sparingly using his bench and relying on retreads from the 2011 Bulls (*cough* Derrick Rose *cough*), the Timberwolves need more from their third banana.
Andrew Wiggins hasn’t developed into the all-around player he was supposed to be and is now locked into a long-term max contract. He isn’t the answer for playing alongside Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, but he’s still just 23 years-old and the case for his untapped potential is easily built.
Now, it’s a matter of finding a trade partner with equally-burdensome contracts to exchange. I remain entrenched in my view that Charlotte and Minnesota could make the perfect match.
For the Thunder, so much rides on Paul George’s impending player option. If he decides to leave Oklahoma City in the dust like so many expect, the Thunder will be left with Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams, a washed Carmelo Anthony who refuses to come off the bench (also with a player option), Andre Roberson, and a bunch of role players. This would be good news for triple-double enthusiasts, bad news for Oklahoma City fans with title aspirations.
It’s hard to say what the Pacers should do after overachieving in the Year of Oladipo. They ended the season as the No. 5 seed in an improved Eastern Conference and took Cleveland to seven games. All this in spite of Myles Turner stalling out with a slew of injuries. Their biggest need is a backcourt companion for Oladipo. The ideal candidate would be a knockdown shooter who doesn’t need the ball to be productive. They’ll have a mess of upcoming cap room to work with once their short-term contracts come off the books.
Yes, the Cavaliers live to fight another day. However, it took them seven games to get past the Pacers and LeBron James already had to kick it into sixth gear. Cleveland’s future and, I imagine, most of its economy, teeters on LeBron. If the King leaves his Northern Ohio throne, the Cavaliers’ front office could hit the reset button and go for a complete overhaul as well.
Conventional wisdom says the likelihood of a hard reboot decreases with each round the Cavaliers escape. We’ll see in the coming weeks just how far James can carry them. Maybe they make it back to the Finals. Even then, maybe he leaves anyway.
It’s the NBA, anything is possible. Change is the only constant.