By Bryan Toporek
Like winter in Game of Thrones, regression is coming for a handful of the NBA’s most recent playoff combatants.
Offseason departures left a trio of Eastern Conference postseason squads in tatters, even though all three of those franchises’ wounds were largely self-inflicted. In the Western Conference, meanwhile, a rapidly escalating arms race turned more teams into potential title contenders, putting the squeeze on lower-rung playoff squads.
Injuries can always upend a playoff contender at any time, but a handful of 2017 postseason combatants appear destined to fall out of the playoff picture this coming season regardless of health. Everything could break right, enabling them to go on a surprise postseason run, but the odds are more in favor of them sending a representative to the lottery dais next May.
Which 2017 playoff teams should start their scouting reports on Luka Doncic, Michael Porter, Marvin Bagley III and Co.? The following five stand out in particular.
Honorable Mention: Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers
Replacing Gordon Hayward and Chris Paul will be no easy task for the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, respectively. Teams rarely emerge unscathed after losing All-Stars, even if both the Jazz and Clippers did their best to make lemonade out of lemons.
Realizing Paul had one foot out the door, the Clippers somehow managed to convince him to opt into his 2017-18 player option and sent him to the Houston Rockets in exchange for a package of seven players and a top-three-protected 2018 first-round pick. While the likes of Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell won’t make Clippers fans forget about the Point God anytime soon, their replacement-by-committee approach may prevent L.A. from experiencing too much slippage.
During a mid-July press conference, Doc Rivers espoused his vision for a post-Paul offense.
— FOX Sports West (@FoxSportsWest) July 18, 2017
The Clippers averaged 301.0 passes last season, the 13th-most league-wide, although they finished with the sixth-fewest potential assists (42.1) per game. If L.A. taps into Blake Griffin’s passing ability more, as The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks suggested in late June, Beverley’s familiarity with playing off the ball could indeed give the team a far different look offensively. Whether that’s enough to survive the Western Conference gauntlet, though, is anyone’s guess this year.
The Jazz likewise must rely on a host of contributors to compensate for the loss of Hayward after he signed with the Boston Celtics as a free agent in July. To Utah’s credit, the front office responded proactively to his departure, signing Jonas Jerebko and Thabo Sefolosha to help absorb some of Hayward’s vacated scoring load. If summer league is any indication, No. 13 overall pick Donovan Mitchell could emerge as an instant-impact contributor this season as well.
Still, replacing a player who just went off for a career-high 21.9 points on 47.1 percent shooting, 5.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.0 triples in 34.5 minutes per game this past season will be no easy task. If Rodney Hood doesn’t break out as expected, or injury misfortune befalls this team again—here’s looking at you, Derrick Favors and Alec Burks—the additions of Mitchell, Sefolosha, Jerebko, Ekpe Udoh and point guard Ricky Rubio may not be enough to keep Utah out of the lottery.
5. Portland Trail Blazers
Before acquiring Denver Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic the week before the 2017 trade deadline, the Portland Trail Blazers were more disappointing than the box office returns for Valerian.
Prior to Nurkic’s debut in a Portland uniform, the Blazers were 23-32 and were fresh off losing four of their previous five games. A 23-point thumping at the hands of the Utah Jazz heading into the All-Star break left them 10 games under .500, two games behind the eighth-seeded Nuggets. Though they pulled out of the December tailspin in which they lost 10 times over an 11-game stretch, the Blazers seemingly had little hope of turning their season around.
Following the All-Star layoff, however, Portland looked like a new team. It ripped off 18 wins over its final 26 games to squeak past Denver for the final spot in the Western Conference playoff bracket. The Golden State Warriors promptly proceeded to sweep the Blazers, routing them by 29 points in Game 2 and 25 in Game 4, but just making the playoffs was a victory in and of itself after the miserable first few months they endured.
Unfortunately, their drunken spending spree during the 2016 offseason came back to haunt them this summer. Faced with an exorbitant luxury-tax bill just to keep a 41-win team together, Portland shipped Allen Crabbe to the Brooklyn Nets in a salary dump in exchange for Andrew Nicholson, who it promptly waived. The addition of rookie big men Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan will infuse the Blazers’ frontcourt with some much-needed youthful energy, but they’re by and large running back the same team they had last season.
Considering the strides other Western Conference playoff hopefuls made this offseason—notably the Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves—Portland is suddenly on the outside looking in on the postseason picture. If Nurkic’s late-season surge was no fluke, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum continue playing at an All-Star-caliber level and Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless and Evan Turner can make up for the loss of Crabbe, the Blazers could find their way back into the playoffs. Given their competition out West, though, the odds aren’t in their favor this season.
4. Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers somehow managed to screw up the offseason twice in the span of two weeks.
First, they redefined the term “selling low” by trading Paul George to the Thunder for the middling package of Victor Oladipo—and his four-year, $84 million contract extension that kicks in this year—and Domantas Sabonis. While the Boston Celtics undoubtedly would have bowled the Pacers over with a far better offer had Indiana waited until Gordon Hayward made his free-agency decision, Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard’s hastiness cost the team dearly.
Rather than embrace the tank and build around promising third-year big man Myles Turner, the Pacers instead pivoted into a half-assed rebuild by signing Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic to two-year deals. They doubled down by effectively agreeing to sign-and-trade CJ Miles to the Toronto Raptors for Cory Joseph, who can opt out of his contract following the 2017-18 season. None of those moves will haunt Indiana like some of the contracts signed last summer—here’s looking at you, Joakim Noah and Timofey Mozgov—but they may prevent the Pacers from being bad enough to land a high lottery pick next spring.
At this point, the only surefire keeper on Indiana’s roster is Turner, who deserves to be mentioned more frequently along with the NBA’s other budding young “unicorns.” In just his age-20 season, the Texas product averaged 14.5 points on 51.1 percent shooting, 7.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 31.4 minutes per night while shooting 34.8 percent from three-point range, albeit on only 115 attempts all year. With George gone, the Pacers must now pivot to an offense centered around Oladipo and him, making a breakout year for Turner as easy to prognosticate as the inferno currently surrounding Donald Trump’s presidency.
Unless Turner emerges as the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon this season, however, the Pacers have little chance of making a playoff run, even in the beaten-down Eastern Conference. They aren’t awful enough to finish with top-three lottery odds, but they aren’t good enough to finish above the 10th seed in the East. If Pritchard doesn’t strike gold with a mid-lottery pick next June, he may grow to regret his one-toe-in-the-water rebuilding strategy.
3. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grit ‘n’ Grind era came to an unceremonious end this offseason, as the Memphis Grizzlies allowed both Zach Randolph and Tony “The Grindfather” Allen to walk as free agents. Randolph signed a two-year, $24 million contract with the Sacramento Kings—before getting arrested on a felony charge of possessing marijuana with the intent to sell—while Allen remains unsigned. Vince Carter, one of Memphis’ most reliable reserves from last season, likewise followed Z-Bo to Sacramento in free agency.
Sans Randolph and Allen, the Grizzlies now lack the centerpieces of their identity from the past half-decade. Sure, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley will continue to play at an All-Star-caliber level, but beyond that, Memphis finds itself in somewhat dire straits unless Chandler Parsons can put his knee issues behind him. Parsons, who averaged a career-low 6.2 points on 33.8 percent shooting, 2.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.7 treys and 0.6 steals in 19.9 minutes across 34 games last season, looked like a shell of himself in the first year of his four-year, $94.8 million contract.
If Parsons doesn’t bounce back, the Grizzlies may not have enough depth to remain competitive in the cutthroat West. They took low-risk, high-upside gambles on Tyreke Evans, Ben McLemore and Mario Chalmers this summer, but they’re dangerously top-heavy. Memphis also remains in a contract standoff with 27-year-old big man JaMychal Green, who may decide to sign the team’s one-year qualifying offer after the market for restricted free agents unexpectedly dried up.
Even if Green returns, the Grizzlies will enter the season without three of their top six minutes-getters from last year. If younger players such as Wade Baldwin, Deyonta Davis, Andrew Harrison, Jarell Martin and Wayne Selden aren’t ready to shoulder a larger load, the complementary cast could be Memphis’ downfall no matter how well Gasol, Conley and Parsons play. Rade Zagorac, the team’s second-round pick from 2016, likely won’t be enough to keep the reserve unit afloat if Evans, McLemore and/or the young pups flop.
As Ronald Tillery of the Commercial Appeal relayed Thursday, Gasol recently hinted when speaking with a Spanish media outlet that he’d be willing to be traded if the Grizzlies begin to nosedive. Given the current state of the West, it appears far more likely that Memphis begins pivoting toward a full-scale rebuild rather than squeaking out an eighth straight playoff berth.
2. Chicago Bulls
After shipping Jimmy Butler and the No. 16 pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves during the 2017 NBA draft for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick, the Chicago Bulls have no intention of being competitive in 2017-18.
By any objective and subjective measure, Dunn was an abject disaster as a rookie last season. While he showed flashes of defensive promise, his offensive shortcomings—he averaged 3.8 points on 37.7 percent shooting, 2.4 assists, 2.1 rebounds and 1.1 turnovers in just 17.1 minutes per game—undermined the impact he made on the point-preventing end. Regardless, he’ll enter training camp this season with a real chance to seize Chicago’s starting point guard job, as only Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne stand in his way. (That’s hardly a murderer’s row.)
LaVine, meanwhile, figures to emerge as the face of the Bulls rebuild…once he returns from the torn ACL he suffered in February, that is. While the 22-year-old claims to be ahead of schedule in his recovery and plans on being ready for training camp, per Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated, Chicago’s management has taken on a far less optimistic tone. Head coach Fred Hoiberg hopes to have him back “shortly after the start of the season,” per Cody Westerlund of Locked on Bulls, while executive vice president John Paxson told reporters the team will “err on the side of caution” with regard to LaVine’s return.
Until LaVine is back on the court, the most interesting subplot involving the Bulls is the Dwyane Wade hostage situation. Earlier this summer, both Paxson and Hoiberg told reporters they didn’t expect the team to buy out D-Wade and allow him to latch on with a contender, as Paxson said any buyout talks would have to be “advantageous” to the Bulls. The standoff may come to a conclusion earlier than expected, however, as ESPN.com’s Nick Friedell reported “the widespread belief within the organization is that a deal that would allow Wade to play elsewhere will eventually get worked out at some point during the season.
If (when?) Wade leaves, the Bulls will be relying heavily upon inexperienced players, many of whom have yet to prove they belong at the NBA level. Even in a ravaged Eastern Conference, they lack the top-end talent and complementary depth to compete for a playoff spot. Instead, expect Chicago to be jostling for more pingpong balls throughout much of the year.
1. Atlanta Hawks
Since July 1, 2016, the Atlanta Hawks lost Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Tim Hardaway Jr. and received nothing in exchange for any of them. This offseason, they also shipped Dwight Howard and the No. 31 pick to the Charlotte Hornets for the paltry return of Miles Plumlee, Marco Belinelli and the No. 41 pick. Atlanta managed to get more for Kyle Korver—who it sent to the Cleveland Cavaliers in January for Mike Dunleavy, Mo Williams, and a suddenly relevant top-10-protected first-round pick—than it did for Howard, Horford, Millsap or Hardaway.
A team attempting to remain competitive wouldn’t have blown apart its core like that without getting more in return.
The Hawks didn’t go full Hinkie this summer, as they signed Ersan Ilyasova and Dewayne Dedmon to serve as stopgap veterans in their frontcourt, but they’re otherwise putting significant faith in their young players. Given Atlanta’s dearth of other reliable scoring options, point guard Dennis Schroder may be looking at upward of 20 shot attempts per game. While he fared relatively well during his first season as a starter, the downgrade from Millsap and Howard to Ilyasova and Dedmon could send his field-goal percentage into the toilet.
The Hawks do have some intriguing young talent on their roster, most notably their pair of 2016 first-round picks, Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry. The former showed out toward the end of the 2016-17 campaign, while the latter popped in summer league this year, but both are likely to endure significant ups and downs during their first full season as regular rotation players. John Collins, the No. 19 overall pick this past June, could likewise emerge as a fixture of Atlanta’s frontcourt one day, but those expecting a seamless transition will likely be disappointed.
If Schroder flops as the No. 1 option and Kent Bazemore can’t rediscover his groove after struggling during the first year of his four-year, $70 million contract last season, the Hawks are in for a long, long 2017-18 campaign. Like with Chicago, the odds are better for Atlanta to jostle for a top-three pick than make the playoffs.