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The Future of NBA Non-Playoff Teams: Eastern Conference

As we discussed last week, there are multiple teams that are not returning for the NBA season in Orlando. For these teams, it is already the offseason, and they need to figure out what they need to do in both the draft and free-agency to return to relevance. Similar to last week’s article, I will go over each team’s biggest need, while also going over the biggest question that each team has to answer by the end of the offseason.

Unlike last week’s article, many of these Eastern Conference teams are incredibly dysfunctional and the fan-bases for certain franchises should be concerned on the direction their team is heading into in the upcoming season.

Also an important note, since there are six teams that need to be talked about, I will make each segment more brief in order to accommodate all six team and their unique situations. Undeniably the road for success is much harder for these six teams in the East, but if they are able to make the right choices this offseason, they might be able to return to playoff-contention. 

Cleveland Caveliers

Positions of need: Playmaking Forward, Coach focused on developing young talent

Biggest question: What are they going to do with Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson?

Starting off the list is the team with the worst record in the Eastern Conference. Let’s be clear, the team has not been a relevant contender since LeBron left for LA. Since his departure, the team has basically focused on rebuilding on pieces like Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. And while I am not sold on Garland, I believe that with the proper coach and development, Sexton could be one of the major cornerstones of this team.

While he may be labeled as selfish, the fact is that there are really no major scoring options aside from Sexton. He not only averages 20 points per game, but is doing it with surprising efficiency with a field goal percentage and a 3-point field goal percentage of 42% and 40% respectively. There are however no other major scorers on the team which does leave the burden of scoring solely on the responsibility on Sexton. 

Aside from their anemic offense that ranks 25th in the league, the biggest problem with this team is that they commit a lot of turnovers. In the entire league, they committed the most turnovers per game this season. In order to improve they need a coach focused on discipline and developing the young pieces that they have already.

And they are going to have an honest evaluation on the talent that they have on the team. In order to improve, they will have to trade away solid team players in order to invest in their future. And in order to do this properly, they need a coach with those same principals and viewpoints.

This leads to the major problem for the Cavs, as they have an overabundance of “bigs” on their roster. Prior to the season being suspended, the Cavs acquired Andre Drummond. Drummond is the best rebounder in the league and is a solid big in the post and on the defensive end. The problem is that due to the current style of basketball, Drummond’s overall value has diminished.

Simply being a great rebounder is not as important as it used to be in other eras. In addition, the Cavs already have two solid rebounders in both Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. Drummond, Love, and Thompson all have essentially the same role which sets the team up for failure.

It’s like if I owned an ice cream store and my solution to replacing an empty tray of chocolate ice cream was to replace it with strawberry ice cream. Sure the owner has more product, but it does not resolve the fundamental problem.

In the case for the Cavs, they need to find a way to trade either Thompson or Love. They serve no value on the team with Drummond present, and they are still talented enough to get a decent return in a trade. Considering the fact that Cleveland is not a premier free-agency destination, the draft and trading one of their forwards is the only way the Cavs can fill the holes within its roster and return to the path of relevance.

Atlanta Hawks

Positional needs: defensive wing/forward, a secondary playmaker.  

Biggest Question: What is Cam Reddish’s potential?

The Hawks are in a very unique situation. Despite having a largely disappointing season, it is clear that there have been multiple areas of potential growth. This is based off many of the acquisitions made by the franchise and the overall development of Trae Young. While Ice Trae has still a lot of work to do before being considered as a top player in the league, it is clear that he has the ability to be the cornerstone of the Hawks franchise.

While I would not compare him to Steph Curry, his ability to shoot, dribble, pass and overall basketball IQ reminds me of a modern Steve Nash.  A player that can take over a game late, but is primarily focused on getting his teammates involved. And speaking of teammates, the Hawks have legitimate players like John Collins and Deandre Hunter who make valuable contributions to the team’s success.

And through a trade with the Houston Rockets, the team now has Clint Capela, who will be a great interior defender and a solid lob finisher. Trae is great in the pick n’ roll, and I am confident that Capela will not only open up lanes for Trae, but for other players on both ends of the court as well.

This, however, does not fix all of the team’s issues, and the primary issue of this team is defense. Similar to many other smaller guards in the league, having Trae on the floor always weakens the team’s overall defense. As a trade-off to his amazing offensive abilities, teams can easily punish Trae on switches, and has not shown the strength to stop players from entering the lane or the dexterity to steal the ball from opposing guards.

Therefore, like other teams, the Hawks will need to disguise Trae’s weakness and have his teammates fully commit to providing proper help-defense during a switch. Similar to how Young picks up the slack for the Hawks anemic offense, the team should be responsible in helping shore up Trae’s inconsistencies on defense.

This leads to a player that is having a very interesting season. Cam Reddish has shown glimpses of being a pesky defender, and if he can continue this growth, he could be the missing link needed to improve Atlanta’s defense. The problem for the Hawks is determining the proper role Reddish will have on the offensive end.

Coming out of college, Reddish was the third best player on an amazing Duke team. Due to this, he was often placed in the role of either the third option or simply as a traditional catch-and-shoot player. His ability to shoot from deep has not transitioned great in the NBA, as he is below average in terms of both 3-point field goal percentage and field goal attempts.

This means that he is both not shooting many threes, and when he does, he is mainly missing those shots. Trae Young was top 3 in dissing out passes where the player was considered open for the shot, with it missing the mark. While it is not solely on Reddish, having a reliable threat from deep aside from Trae would set Atlanta up for success.

If the Hawks front-office believes that Reddish fits in that mold, then they can focus their attention on adding another pure scorer on the team. If Reddish is unable to fulfill this role, then their team has to find a player that can hit those open shots. Overall, Atlanta had a rough season but has shown the potential to surprise everyone next season  

Detroit Pistons 

Positional Needs: A playmaking forward, Center

Biggest Question: Is it time to start the rebuild? 

The Pistons are a franchise that I have a lot of respect towards. They are a team that are consistently trying to build a competitive team every year. Their experiment with Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin, and Derrick Rose produced some great moments. However, the team has essentially been in NBA Purgatory for multiple years.

They are a team that was never terrible enough to get a high lottery pick, but was also never really good enough to compete against the best teams in the league. And while I respect their efforts for trying, it is clear from their Andre Drummond trade that the team is simply moving into the direction of rebuilding for the future.

The only player that should be untouchable this upcoming offseason is Luke Kennard. While he may not be the greatest player on the Pistons, he could be one of the major foundational pieces for the other talent that they either acquire through trades or the draft. Aside from him, everyone on this team should be considered expendable and used to improve the future of the franchise. Essentially the focus cannot revert back to competing for an 8th seed.   

Again, this team could be tempted to continue competing due to the decent players that they still have on the roster. The team, while having a bad season, is still only four games behind the ninth seed. The Pistons in the upcoming season could have a really good stretch of basketball and wind up as an eight seed. The franchise should not be fueled by this success and should instead focus in the long-term future of the franchise.

While I am not saying the team should tank, if the team is given offers to trade away some of their pieces in order to drastically improve their roster, the Pistons should trade those players. It will therefore be up to the organization to make smart decisions to trade away players that are clearly not going to be a part of the franchise’s future plans.

The two biggest pieces that they may consider moving are Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin. While Blake is a great talent, his substantial injury history and ludicrous contract will create a negative impression on potential suitors. However, if they wait patiently, I am positive that a desperate team will make the trade for Griffin in order to push a team to legitimate playoff contention.

In the case of Rose, he could remain on the team as a good leadership and veteran presence: however, if they are unable to trade Griffin (which is very possible), then the Pistons would have no choice but to trade him off to another team. I know it’s difficult to part away from fan favorites, but in reality, this is the best option for both parties.

For both players, they can truly compete on a team with legitimate potential, while the Pistons are allowed a chance to move on and create a better future. Look, the Pistons with Blake had a good run; however, the experiment ran its course and it’s now time for the team to find a new centerpiece for the franchise.     . 

New York Knicks

Positional needs: Guard, Scorer off the bench.  

Biggest Question: How good are the assets on the roster?

The Knicks have had a rough two decades with James Dolan running the team. Whenever the team finds talent or makes significant improvement, Dolan either trades away those players or simply allows those players to walk in free agency. This has occurred with players like Carmelo Anthony, Jeremy Lin, and Kristaps Porzingis.

However, in spite of the constant disappointment, I believe that the team has finally acquired pieces that can be the foundation of this team. And I understand that Knicks fans are tired of waiting and are eagerly hoping for a star player to immediately improve the impact of the franchise, but sadly that strategy has failed time and time again.

They have to make a concerted effort to develop the players that are already on the roster, and determine which players are truly foundational pieces and which players they need to either waive or trade for better assets. 

In this aspect, the New York faithful should be excited for the developing talents that they have on the roster. Mitchell Robinson, despite having some underwhelming stats, has proven to be a reliable and consistent center for the Knicks. Not only does he snatch multiple rebounds, but he is extremely effective with a field goal percentage of 74%. Lastly he is a solid rim protector, as he averages 2 blocks per game and is proven to be the anchor of an otherwise mediocre defense.

Another player that does not get enough love is RJ Barrett. Look, I understand that he is NOT Zion Williamson or Ja Morant, but at this early stage of his career, he has already shown extreme polish in his game and legitimate potential. He already shows no fear of the bright lights of New York and is a lot tougher than people thought.

He is currently the team’s third leading scorer and was shooting the ball with relatively good efficiency. Another player that was the third leading scorer on their team their rookie year was Jayson Tatum.

Am I here saying that RJ Barrett is going to be Jayson Tatum? Of course not. The only point that I am trying to make is that for any NBA player, their process of adjusting to the speed and dynamics of the professional game is challenging. And while he may not play like a superstar now, he still has the ability to elevate his game while also elevating the Knicks in the future.

The three players that I would really look into if I was the management in New York are Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox, and Frank Ntilikina. In terms of all three players, I believe that they all have potential and have some decent strengths. However, they all also have some glaring weaknesses in their game and also have other players on the team that essentially do their job but better.

I am not saying the Knicks should trade these players, but I would really take next year as an opportunity to evaluate all three and determine whether or not they have a place in the future of the franchise. If they do not, then it may be time to cash-in some of these assets for teams desperate for young new talent. 

The Knicks are in a rough spot as an organization. They really have nobody on the roster that I would categorize as a “superstar”. The allure to get a high caliber player in order to fill seats in the arena is a very appealing option.

However, if you look at any of the great teams in the NBA, Golden State, San Antonio, or even the Milwaukee Bucks, they are all great because they developed the talent that was already on the roster. If the Knicks want to improve, they need to stop making the same mistakes and need to focus on developing their team and living with the results. 

Chicago Bulls

Positional needs: three-point specialist, a secondary playmaker.  

Biggest Question: Can Zach LaVine be the best player on a championship team?

Unlike other teams on this list, I feel as though the Bulls have had a very unlucky regular season. A multitude of their players were hurt throughout the year, and they never really had a chance to play a multitude of games with a fully healthy roster. Many of the players in the front court that they thought were going to be major contributors this year, like Otto Porter, Wendell Carter Jr, and Lauri Markkanen, simply did not have healthy years and it severely hampered their chances to be competitive this year.

Does this mean that the team should restart, and rebuild for the next couple years? I believe that rebuilding would be an egregious mistake for this organization, as they have the talent available to eventually be a contender in the Eastern Conference in the future.

I like the skill set of both Markkanen and Carter Jr., and if given enough time and a coach dedicated to maximizing their skillset, they could be a formidable front-court duo. They have a solid rookie guard in Coby White who has demonstrated to both score the basketball, while also dissing out assists to his teammates. But the player that I am most interested to see is Zach LaVine.

He was a player that came into the NBA with a reputation of just being a good athlete. But every year he has been in the league, his skills and overall playstyle has improved. This past year, Zach averaged 25 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists while also being very efficient by having a field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage of 45% and 38% respectively.

He is a good player and one that does not garner the same attention as other players simply because of the poor play of his team this year. But I want to see LaVine be given an opportunity to not only play with a healthy roster, but also be given additional weapons to help shoulder the offensive burden.

There are multiple free agents in the upcoming off-season that I believe would be great for the spacing of this team and would allow LaVine the lanes needed to properly attack the basket. Overall, I really like this team and I am truly excited for the future they hold.    

Charlotte Hornets

Positional needs: defensive wing/forward, Center.  

Biggest Question: What should the team do about Terry Rozier?

The Hornets are the final team on this list and will have one of the toughest offseasons compared to other teams. However, before going into the difficult news, let’s look at the biggest bright spot this season. That is the back-court of both Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham.

On paper, it would not seem as though this pairing would work as both are a bit undersized for the position and both are scoring guards that like to have the ball in their hands to make plays. Despite this, they have worked well together this season, as they both averaged 18 points a game on decent shooting splits. And after losing Kemba Walker, (one of the franchise’s best players ever) Charlotte has been able to fill his role with two very solid players.

This, however, leads to the difficult issue of the Hornets who are in what I call NBA purgatory. This means that they are a team that is not good enough to compete, but is not bad enough to earn a high lottery pick in the draft. They essentially have no other playmakers aside for Rozier and Graham, and even players that they are developing like Monk and Bridges have relatively low ceilings compared to other young teams.

However, they need to put all their energy into surrounding the backcourt of this team with both perimeter weapons and defensive players. I would primarily focus on the defense, because these two players are going to carry such an offensive load that it will be up to the other players to help carry their weight on the defensive end.

Also, a good note is that the Hornets have a decent amount of cap space that they can use to help this team reach its full potential. While I do not love this strategy, at the end of the day, you have to play with the hand you’re dealt, and for the Hornets, their only real play into playoff conversations is the continued improvement of both Rozier and Graham. 

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