NEW YORK • The National Basketball Association’s Eastern Conference is more open than ever, coming off a season in which an upstart fifth seed made it to the Finals.
At least one team are virtually guaranteed to vault into the top tier from mediocrity: The Brooklyn Nets, given that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are expected to return from injury for the new season. But otherwise, it should be a slugfest from start to finish.
There will be lots of eyes on the plight of Giannis Antetokounmpo and his tenure with the Milwaukee Bucks, not to mention the beginning of the Doc Rivers era in Philadelphia. And maybe this is the year the New York Knicks make progress?
To all the Eastern Conference general managers, here is a suggestion for one thing your team have to do this off season.
Coming off an unexpectedly strong season, they are in a great position. They have young talent, a star in Jimmy Butler, significant cap space and the 20th pick in the draft.
But if the Heat are to make it back to the Finals, they will need more consistent playmaking outside of Butler. They have three significant players entering free agency – guard Goran Dragic, centre Meyers Leonard and wing Jae Crowder. The cap space, however, gives the Heat flexibility to pursue another playmaker to team with Butler – Victor Oladipo, perhaps?
Boston need scoring help off the bench. Much of their off season hinges on whether Gordon Hayward opts into his roughly US$34 million (S$46 million) contract for next year, so the one way to concretely get playmaking help is through the draft, where Boston have picks No. 14, 26 and 30.
Given Boston’s championship aspirations and the unlikely chance of getting someone who can contribute right away with late-round picks, Danny Ainge, the team’s president of basketball, should explore trading up.
The Nets have no cap space, but they essentially get to see their off-season moves from last summer come to fruition now, with Durant and Irving (right) returning from injuries.
Their big acquisition this summer was Steve Nash, their new head coach. Unless the Nets are willing to trade some of their young talent – wing Caris LeVert, guard Spencer Dinwiddie and centre Jarrett Allen – there is no third star coming.
That means the Nets need to re-sign Joe Harris, an unrestricted free agent. With two ball-dominant stars, the Nets would benefit from having a sharpshooter on the perimeter.
Solve the Al Horford problem. According to the NBA’s tracking numbers, there is some evidence that playing Horford and Joel Embiid together can work. The team’s most-used line-up of Horford, Tobias Harris, Embiid, Josh Richardson and Ben Simmons outscored opposing line-ups by 8.5 points per 100 possessions.
But the league is trending towards smaller line-ups, and it is not clear that doubling down on multiple big men on the floor is going to work over a full season. It didn’t last year. To that end, when Horford and Embiid were on the floor together, the team were 0.5 point worse per 100 possessions overall, and both men played better when the other one was off the floor.
Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol are all unrestricted free agents. Kyle Lowry is entering the last year of his contract. At the very least, the Raptors have to re-sign VanVleet, and likely will.
Build an Antetokounmpo statue outside the arena now so he feels too guilty to leave in free agency next summer.
Oladipo has not publicly asked for a trade, but there is enough smoke flying around that there is probably fire. This always goes the same way: First, there are rumours of discontent. Then there is a leak of a trade request. And then the team are forced to make a trade with minimal leverage.
The Pacers should trade Oladipo now before the inevitable trade request. At 28, he isn’t a top-tier star and has made just two All-Star games. The Pacers had the right idea in acquiring him in the 2017 Paul George-trade with Oklahoma City, especially because they also received Domantas Sabonis, 24, in the deal. But Sabonis, who made his first All-Star team last season, may end up being the better player of the two.
The Pistons have lots of cap room, the seventh pick in the draft and a star in Blake Griffin, who is still in his prime and with lots left to prove. They need to either trade Griffin and commit to rebuilding or use the cap space to land a star.
Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell would be an ideal target. Maybe the Washington Wizards’ Davis Bertans.
They were one of the worst defensive teams in the league last year, so if the Hawks want to vault, they need some help on that side of the ball. Atlanta are on track to have the most cap space in the league.
They have two of the better young players in the NBA in Trae Young and John Collins; the sixth pick in the draft; and several capable supporting players, including Clint Capela.
With extensions approaching for Young and the others, the Hawks have to use the cap space now. But on whom? Signing someone like Dwight Howard would be ideal. Same for Hayward if he opts out of his deal with Boston, because he can play on both sides of the ball.
The Magic have lots of talent but none in the top-tier. It is hard to jump to championship status without it, and Aaron Gordon isn’t cutting it. They won’t have much, if any, cap space this summer, but it is time to see what the trade market is for Gordon.
Owner Michael Jordan needs to nail the third pick in the draft. If he doesn’t, everyone should point it out so he takes it personally, returns as a player and wins another championship.
The Wizards may have a little bit of cap room to play with this fall, even with nearly US$70 million committed to John Wall and Bradley Beal.
But that is only if the Wizards don’t pay Bertans, who is due for a big raise as an unrestricted free agent. Can Bertans, even with his shooting ability, be the third-best player on a team looking to make noise in a competitive conference?
Even with Wall and Beal, it might be best to let him go.
They have the No. 4 pick. Even in what is said to be a weak draft, there is likely long-term cornerstone potential in a player in this pool. The three most talked about prospects are James Wiseman, LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards.
The Bulls haven’t had a significant A-level building block since Derrick Rose, and there is not a single one on the team currently.
Arturas Karnisovas should consider trading the pick, and package it with one of the younger prospects on the team (Lauri Markkanen or Wendell Carter) to see if either Minnesota, Golden State or Charlotte will bite.
Kevin Love and Andre Drummond, who opted in to the last year of his contract after being traded from Detroit, are not going to work playing together. Free Love!
NEW YORK KNICKS
Go three months without feuding with film director and Knicks superfan Spike Lee.