Each year in the NBA some teams see their seasons go sideways. When this happens, the natural inclination is to look at just how quickly those teams can dig out from under the rubble of a collapsed season.
Five teams immediately come to mind this season. A couple of them are even playing good basketball at the moment. But one injury or one losing streak and it could all fall apart. That is why these five need to consider blowing it up as soon as possible.
$9.2 million over the luxury tax for 2018-19, $76 million over the cap for 2019-20
Let’s not bury the lead here. The Wizards are a mess. They’ve been the NBA’s preeminent soap opera all season. John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. are all maxed out contract-wise and they clearly don’t get along. Dwight Howard hasn’t been healthy and has now undergone a surgery that will keep him out for the foreseeable future. There is a lack of young talent to infuse some energy into a stale group. That’s a recipe for disaster, which is exactly what Washington’s season has become.
The Wizards are reportedly willing to trade anyone, but how likely is that to happen? It depends on who you’re talking about.
Wall is at the top of the list. Some still see him as a top-tier point guard, but that list grows shorter with each passing year. And that’s just on the court. Off the court, Wall is owed a very tradable $19.2 million for this season. But looming over everything is a complicated trade bonus and a four-year, $170 million extension that will begin in 2019-20. That extension will pay Wall $47.3 million in 2022-23, when he’ll be 32 years old. For a guy who looks like he’s physically breaking down year after year, that’s a scary proposition. For multiple reasons, Wall isn’t likely to go anywhere.
Porter is next up. He has fans around the league. Both the Brooklyn Nets and Sacramento Kings made a push for him as a free agent a couple of summers ago. Rumors are that both have inquired about trading for him. The challenge with Porter is that he’s seen as somewhat of an equivalent to Harrison Barnes. When the Dallas Mavericks signed Barnes in 2016 it was viewed as a litmus-test of sorts: Was Barnes held back by playing with other great players? Or is he best when cast as a third or fourth option? Porter is in the same boat. If you take on his contract, with three years and $81.7 million remaining, you’re betting that Wall and Beal have held him back.
As for Beal, he’s easily got the most value of the three max players on Washington. He’s one of the league’s best shooters and can be a plug-and-play in any system. He’s owed $81.3 million over the last three years of his deal, but that certainly isn’t an albatross. Moving Beal could deliver the Wizards a combination of young talent and draft picks they sorely need.
Washington’s role players could also have some value. Markieff Morris, Tomas Satoransky and Kelly Oubre Jr. could all return some small assets. All three are scheduled to hit free agency after the season, so the return won’t be great. But anything that helps clear out the morass in Washington would be valuable.
$6.3 million over luxury tax for 2018-19, $49.8 million over the cap for 2019-20
In 2016-17, the Heat turned around a 10-31 first half and went 31-10 in the second half to make a playoff push. They’re not in quite the same hole this year at 9-14, but not too far off. But this Miami group seems a lot more broken than that team in 2017.
Injuries and poor play have undermined this season for the Heat. Most of the rotation regulars have missed games. When they have played, they haven’t played well. The No. 1 culprit has been poor shooting. Miami is shooting just 43.4 percent, which is last in the NBA. Oddly enough, the Heat are eighth in the league in 3-point percentage, which means the problems are finishing in the paint and far too many midrange jumpers.
Even if the Heat do start to show signs of life, this team is passed its expiration date. Miami is carrying some really questionable contracts. Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside and Tyler Johnson all have player options for the 2019-20 season ranging from $19 million to $27 million. It’s almost a lock all three will exercise those options because they aren’t getting anywhere near that much on the open market.
When Miami missed out on adding a max free agent two summers ago, they switched gears and spread their money among James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Dion Waiters for depth. The problem: James Johnson and Olynyk are best in reserve roles, and Waiters has missed the entire season. Depth is good, but when those reserves are called upon to start, your overall roster-building approach looks questionable.
The Heat did well to ink Josh Richardson to an extension last season. He’s the team’s best player and at 25, he’s a rare youthful commodity for Miami. The other two young talents on the roster are Justise Winslow, who was also given an extension, and Bam Adebayo, who is on his rookie-scale contract. While Richardson has established himself, Winslow and Adebayo are still learning their way. Winslow is struggling through a poor-shooting season and has battled injuries, and Adebayo toils behind Whiteside.
Much like the Wizards, the Heat aren’t going to get any sort of major return for anyone they trade. No one except for Richardson and Adebayo should be off the table. Clearing out long-term money and collecting small assets should be the goal,especially when you consider Pat Riley’s record of finding undervalued players late in the draft and in free agency.
$3.4 million under luxury tax for 2018-19, $40 million over the cap for 2019-20
Another season, another year of the Hornets hovering around .500 and in a fight for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. Charlotte changed coaches, but didn’t change much in terms of players and it’s the same old, same old in the Queen City.
Kemba Walker is easily the Hornets’ best player and he’s in the mix in early MVP rankings. Walker is also Charlotte’s sixth-highest paid player behind Nicolas Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. To be fair, Walker’s deal is a remnant of the pre-spike salary cap, but that’s far from the whole story. The Hornets have continually invested in players who are good, but not great. That has left them with a roster of Walker and a bunch of guys who would be the fifth- through eighth-best players on a good team.
Compounding matters is that those five role players are all under contract or have player options they won’t decline for the 2019-20 season. Walker is a free agent and Charlotte isn’t getting any sort of sweetheart deal this time around. If the Hornets keep the status quo, they’ll be well into the luxury tax for a team that is decidedly average. That’s an untenable situation.
While Batum and Biyombo are grossly overpaid, Zeller, Williams and Kidd-Gilchrist offer value for good teams. Each could help contenders in various ways, which means Charlotte could fetch either a young player or a draft pick for them.
In addition, Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky are both free agents this summer. Given the state of the roster, it might be hard for the Hornets to re-sign them, which makes them trade candidates. Lamb, who’s really come into his own this season, fits just about anywhere, and Kaminsky has come on as of late and fills a need as a stretch big.
And then there is Walker himself. If the Hornets really fall out of the playoff race, they might have to swallow hard and deal their franchise player. He’ll turn 29 shortly after the season and that is teetering on the edge of when small guards tend to see their performance dip. Walker would return a huge package of talented youngsters and draft picks. It’s not likely Michael Jordan would sign off on trading Walker, but that doesn’t mean it should be eliminated from consideration either.
$481,000 under luxury tax for 2018-19, $42.7 million over the cap for 2019-20
It might seem ridiculous to put the Pistons on this list. They’re off to a good start at 13-9. Blake Griffin is playing at an All-Star level, and Dwane Casey has stabilized the locker room. But the long-term outlook isn’t nearly as rosy as things seem.
Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson will combine to make nearly $80 million in 2019-20. Key contributors Stanley Johnson, Ish Smith and Reggie Bullock are free agents this summer. And Detroit has some overpaid role players under contract for next year as well. Add it all up and the Pistons are staring at the possibility of paying the luxury tax for a team that isn’t likely to finish in the top half of the Eastern Conference.
Griffin is the face of the franchise now, so he’s not going anywhere. Drummond has too much value, even with more than $81 million owed to him through 2020-21. Jackson’s injury history, uneven play and contract make it unlikely that he gets moved.
So how do the Pistons move forward? It’s time to move some of these pieces. Bullock has been a revelation on a team-friendly contract, but the Pistons have capable replacements in Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown Jr. Glenn Robinson III has been starting at small forward, but he’s a stopgap.
The team can also move its overpaid role players: failed free-agent signings Langston Galloway and Jon Leuer. Neither of them is bringing back a big return, but small assets and clearing money are the goals here. The moves might cause the Pistons to take a step back this season, but it could free things up to move forward. That’s a small loss for a potentially much bigger win.
$2.7 million under luxury tax for 2018-19, $29 million over the cap for 2019-20
If you think it’s questionable to suggest the Pistons should blow it up, you’ll think it is downright crazy to suggest the Grizzlies do the same. After injuries wrecked last season, Memphis has bounced back to start this year. They are 14-9 and firmly in the playoff picture in a deep Western Conference.
So what gives? The threat of injury ruining their season looms larger for the Grizzlies than just about any other team. They’ve already seen JaMychal Green and Chandler Parsons miss considerable time this season. If they were to lose Mike Conley or Marc Gasol again, the season would be over.
For a few years running, the Grizzlies have danced around the luxury-tax line. Avoiding it entirely next year is probably impossible. If Gasol opts out, they’d have to re-sign him to a bigger number. And a host of currently cheap role players would hit free agency as well. That would push them over the luxury-tax line.
But that’s only part of the story. Let’s say Memphis does stay healthy, what is its ceiling? Probably a short playoff appearance, at best. Unless Jaren Jackson Jr., who looks awesome, becomes an All-Star quicker than expected, there just isn’t much upside on this roster. Jackson and role-playing wing Dillon Brooks are the only young talents to get excited about.
Like the Hornets, if the Grizzlies start to fall out of the playoff race, they have to consider trading their beloved players. Conley and Gasol could both fetch premium assets to rebuild around. Role players such as Green and Garrett Temple could return small assets as well. Pair a couple of young talents or draft picks with Jackson, and you’ve all of a sudden got some rebuilding pieces.
It would be a tough pill to swallow for Memphis fans, but if they want to be relevant beyond a short playoff stay, it’s a necessary step. Otherwise, the Grizzlies run the risk of locking into a roster with limited upside. Doing so would jeopardize Jackson’s considerable potential, and that should be avoided at all costs.
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