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Prepare to get pessimistic, folks.
We don’t mean to be downers, but we’re NBA realists. While you all have the freedom to dream as big as you’d like this summer, we aren’t looking at teams through their jersey-colored glasses.
So, we’re here to cram a life lesson into our analysis—not everybody wins, and not every squad offers reasons for optimism.
Free-agency hopes are dashed every summer. Players don’t always take leaps. Teams can stagnate for any number of reasons. Roster constraints can prevent fatal flaws from being corrected.
It might only be June, but we’re already worried about these five teams’ forecasts for October and beyond.
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Notable Free Agents: Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Isaiah Thomas, Julius Randle (RFA)
The Los Angeles Lakers are dreaming characteristically big this summer, which would usually be reason enough to fret about a potentially crushing disappointment.
In this case, the optimism is warranted. Between L.A.’s league-leading amount of cap space, market amenities and improving young core, the Lakers should have enough to at least secure a meeting with every top target.
But then what?
If L.A. hits the long-shot LeBron James–Paul George jackpot, the purple-and-gold faithful are going to entertain title thoughts—like oddsmakers already are. The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook’s opening lines for next season have the Lakers tied for the fifth-best championship odds at 20-1, per ESPN.com’s Ben Fawkes.
“They’d draw a lot of action and probably would have the third-best odds in the West behind Houston and Golden State if LeBron went there,” Westgate oddsmaker John Murray told Fawkes.
Would Lakers fans keep the West’s third-best odds in proper perspective? Barring injury, next season’s Warriors will still have four in-prime All-Stars and two MVP candidates. Next season’s Rockets should include most of the players responsible for what was just a top-20 campaign in NBA history.
Asking James for a title in 2018-19 is begging for disappointment. And even if he doesn’t join the Lakers, there are reasons to worry.
Let’s say L.A.’s only big fish this summer is Paul George. Fans will still expect him to leave a major imprint, even though he last steered a team past the opening round in 2014.
And what happens if the Lakers don’t land any notable free agent and roll their flexibility over to 2019? The L.A. faithful will anticipate a bump from the squad’s youngsters, even though each player faces growing pains.
Lonzo Ball had abysmal shooting marks as a rookie (36 percent overall, 30.5 outside). Brandon Ingram almost abandoned the three ball last season, having attempted only 105 triples in 59 games. And as productive as Kyle Kuzma was, the Lakers fared better without him (minus-2.0 with, minus-0.4 without).
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Advanced Statistics: 107.7 OffRtg (T-8th), 107.7 DefRtg (T-19th), 0.0 NetRtg (T-18th)
Notable Free Agents: DeAndre Jordan (PO), Austin Rivers (PO), Avery Bradley, Milos Teodosic (PO)
The Los Angeles Clippers could have collapsed this season.
Free agency cost them Chris Paul, J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford. Blake Griffin departed ahead of the February trade deadline. Injuries ravaged the roster, limiting Patrick Beverley to 11 contests, Danilo Gallinari to 21 and Avery Bradley to only six after his acquisition.
Give L.A. a clean bill of health and most of its players back in free agency, and this group has to push forward, right?
Who’s the post-Paul, post-Griffin star?
Is it supposed to be Lou Williams, a career spark plug who’s made 42 percent of his shot attempts? Is it Tobias Harris, who has only four games of playoff experience under his belt? Is it Gallinari, a scoring forward who struggles with injuries and inefficient shooting? Is it Jordan, a rim-runner who gets spoon-fed the bulk of his offensive opportunities?
That’s a long-winded way of saying the Clippers have no star. Depending on how Jordan, Rivers and Teodosic handle their respective player options, L.A. might not have any wiggle room to sign one, either. And the draft is hardly a guaranteed path to get one, since the Clippers don’t have a top-10 pick despite holding two lottery selections.
Front office consultant Jerry West recently said he supported the Griffin deal because without it, “this franchise was really stuck,” per Marc Stein of the New York Times. Getting Griffin’s money off the books helped, but it didn’t un-stick this team.
The Western Conference playoff race should be ferocious as ever next season, with all of the 2018 participants presumably in the mix and the Lakers, Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies perhaps each factoring in as well. The Clippers will get passed over if their plan is merely to run this same core back with a cleaner bill of health.
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Advanced Statistics: 106.1 OffRtg (16th), 104.2 DefRtg (T-8th), Plus-1.9 NetRtg (11th)
Notable Free Agents: Jusuf Nurkic (RFA), Ed Davis, Shabazz Napier (RFA), Pat Connaughton (RFA)
The Portland Trail Blazers have one of the NBA’s better backcourts in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. However, it’s tough to tell if they have another significant strength or even how committed they are to this one.
But wait, you’re asking, weren’t these Blazers the third-best team in the West?
By record, yes, albeit with a one-win edge on the fourth, fifth and sixth seeds and a three-victory advantage over the ninth. But after a rocky 5-7 close to the campaign, the DeMarcus Cousins-less New Orleans Pelicans swept them out of the first round of the playoffs.
Given the shape of Portland’s financial books—bloated beyond all reason—this core will likely be trimmed this summer, not expanded. All four free agents listed should attract enough attention that the Blazers will have to sacrifice at least one.
And then there’s the question of whether to keep the offensively-explosive-but-defensively-inept Lillard-McCollum tandem together. Portland’s public stance is that the pair will stay intact, but rival executives thought it would be dismantled if the Blazers bowed out of the playoffs early, per The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor.
Maintaining status quo could be exorbitantly costly and possibly unrewarding. Portland played last season with zero margin for error. Next season, the Blazers could have a smaller safety net with a potentially weakened rotation and stronger in-conference opposition.
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Advanced Statistics: 110.6 OffRtg (5th), 109.5 DefRtg (29th), Plus-1.0 NetRtg (13th)
Notable Free Agents: LeBron James (PO), Jeff Green, Rodney Hood (RFA), Jose Calderon
The Cleveland Cavaliers are doing it again.
It isn’t just the 0-2 record in the 2018 NBA Finals; it’s the absence of hope to turn things around that makes you think they’re pushing LeBron James away for the second time. If they can’t turn his 51-point, eight-assist, eight-rebound masterpiece into a Game 1 triumph, what will it take—both to make this a series and, more importantly, convince the King there won’t be greener grass this summer?
He might be on the championship stage for the ninth time overall and eighth in a row, but this challenge feels different than the rest. He looks as helpless as a player can with series averages of 40 points on 55.8 percent shooting, 10.5 assists and 8.5 rebounds.
“I see a guy trying to push through a lot,” a James confidant told Bleacher Report’s Ken Berger.
It’s been a long time since James’ future with the franchise has felt less certain. Oddsmakers see him as a significant flight risk, which shouldn’t be surprising since he no longer has a superstar sidekick and the Cavs are cap-crunched into oblivion.
If James leaves this summer, he’ll likely take all of Cleveland’s relevance with him. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert wouldn’t want to pay the luxury tax at that point, per Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon, meaning a fire sale might be imminent. This franchise could go from the Finals to the top part of the lottery in a single season.
If James stays, there’s still significant disappointment potential.
Cleveland’s scoring differential was that of a 44-win club, so this group was overachieving—even with an abysmal defense and inconsistent supporting cast. It’ll face a tougher conference with the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers on the rise, and the Cavs’ primary offseason lift might be the No. 8 pick, an upside player who may not provide immediate relief.
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Advanced Statistics: 111.0 OffRtg (3rd), 103.4 DefRtg (5th), Plus-7.6 NetRtg (3rd)
Notable Free Agents: Fred VanVleet (RFA), Lucas Nogueira (RFA)
The Toronto Raptors are hammering the panic button.
After their third straight playoff exit—and second consecutive sweep—at the hands of James and the Cavaliers, they’re perhaps on the brink of major changes. They already axed Coach of the Year finalist Dwane Casey, and they might now turn their attention to the roster.
“Masai Ujiri…is not expected to limit his shakeup to only one move,” Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun wrote. “… Toronto will explore all options, per multiple league sources.”
If the Raptors make a major move, it might feel more like selling than buying.
All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan obviously have value, but they’re also set to collect $58.7 million combined next season. Clubs might not want to part with much to take that kind of change off Toronto’s hands. It’d be hard to see Serge Ibaka ($21.7 million) or Jonas Valanciunas ($16.5 million) moved in anything other than a salary dump.
Toronto could add young pieces to sweeten the pot, but that might strip away one of its greatest qualities—having the Association’s best bench. And how many players would need to be involved to land someone powerful enough to increase the odds of sneaking past James?
However, standing pat might be akin to backtracking if the Celtics and 76ers stay on their ascension schedules. It’s hard to say how the Raptors could squeeze out more internal improvements after what they did last season—modernizing their attack, setting a franchise record for wins (59) and posting top-five efficiency rankings across the board.
This might be basketball’s best version of a Catch-22.
Tear it down, and you’re wiping out the greatest team in franchise history. Leave it be, and you might be committing to an expensive future with no discernible path out of the East. Either way, you’re more likely than not to disappoint.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.
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