One Question: East Non-Playoff Teams
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While the NBA Playoffs remain in full swing, nearly half of the league's teams have already begun to officially focus (end-of-season tanking, notwithstanding) on next season. With that in mind, over the next couple weeks we're going to take at one major question that each team will have to answer this offseason. This week the focus will be on the teams that failed to reach the postseason, and from there the playoff teams will follow based upon when they're eliminated. Today's column focuses on the seven Eastern Conference teams that did not qualify for the playoffs.
Charlotte (33-39, 10th): How will the Hornets address the center position?
This position, which was manned by Bismack Biyombo and Cody Zeller for much of this season, is the key for a franchise that's looking to take the next step in the East. Those two combined to start 57 games, with Biyombo (5.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.2 apg, 1.1 bpg) getting 36 and Zeller (9.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.8 apg, 0.6 spg, 0.4 bpg) 21. Neither set the basketball world on fire, and with both set to be free agents this offseason, Charlotte has the opportunity to make an upgrade. P.J. Washington (12.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.1 spg, 1.2 bpg, 1.8 3-pointers) saw his small-ball center minutes increase significantly down the stretch as, despite being just 6-foot-7, he was Charlotte's best available option.
In a perfect world, the Hornets would have a center dependable enough that Washington won't have to play out of position unless it's in a spot where they can exploit a mismatch. Vernon Carey Jr. and Nick Richards have a big offseason ahead of them with regard to their development, as neither was a consistent rotation player as rookies. But even if those two make strides, Charlotte would be better served landing an established center via trade or free agency.
Chicago (31-41, 11th): Do the Bulls attempt to re-sign Markkanen?
After playing well for much of his first two seasons in Chicago, Lauri Markkanen's following two seasons did not go as planned. After his numbers dipped significantly during the 2019-20 season, in which he played in just 50 games due to injury, Markkanen was even worse this season. He averaged career-lows of 13.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.3 blocks per game, while also knocking down 2.3 3-pointers per (which matched his career-high). And of the 51 games that he played in, Markkanen started 26 as he was jumped in the pecking order by veteran Thaddeus Young.
Now Markkanen will be a restricted free agent. And while team executive VP Arturas Karnisovas said during his end-of-season press conference that the fourth-year forward is an "essential" part of the Bulls' rebuilding plans, one has to wonder just how far Chicago is willing to go when it comes to a possible contract. The two sides weren't particularly close to agreeing to an extension before the season began, so how big of a deal would Chicago be willing to match? Could they attempt to turn that into a sign-and-trade in order to get someone (or something) of value in return? With Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic in the fold Chicago has its two cornerstones for next season, but they've got a big question to answer when it comes to Markkanen.
Cleveland (22-50, 13th): How much do the Cavs believe in Sexton?
The Cavaliers have just one remaining piece from the August 2017 trade that sent Kyrie Irving to Boston, as Jae Crowder (Phoenix), Isaiah Thomas (free agent) and Ante Zizic (free agent) are all gone. That leaves Collin Sexton, who had the best season of his three-year NBA career in 2020-21. He posted averages of 24.3 points, 3.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.6 3-pointers per game, while shooting 47.5% from the field and 81.5% from the foul line. With Sexton being eligible for a rookie extension that would pay him up to $100 million, Cleveland has to decide whether or not they want to commit to him for the long-term.
What also needs to be considered here is the status of Jarrett Allen, who will be a restricted free agent this offseason. Given the amount of money that Allen should command on the open market, and the fact that Cleveland really can't afford to lose him, that could put the front office in an interesting spot when it comes to Sexton. Giving both nine-figure contracts wouldn't make much sense, and it would also mean relying on a backcourt of Sexton, Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro (who is better suited for the two than the three) for the foreseeable future. So, does Cleveland look to re-sign Sexton? Have him play out the final season of his rookie deal? Or look to trade him, thus getting Okoro into the position that would be a better fit for both he and the Cavaliers?
Detroit (20-52, 15th): How do the Pistons fill out the point guard slots?
Obviously lottery pick Killian Hayes, who missed a lot of time due to a hip injury, is a part of the Pistons' rebuilding plans. He played in just 26 games this season (18 starts), posting averages of 6.8 points, 2.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.8 3-pointers per while shooting 35.3% from the field and 82.4% from the foul line. Given the lack of game time due to injury, it feels safe to assume that the Pistons will look to get Hayes some Summer League reps come August. But what happens behind him, as Cory Joseph has a team option worth $12.6 million, and Saben Lee (restricted) is due to be a free agent?
Joseph was a mid-season acquisition, and he proved to be quite valuable to Detroit with regard to both production and experience. Starting 11 of the 19 games that he appeared in for the Pistons, Joseph accounted for 12.0 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.5 blocks and 0.7 3-pointers in 26.4 minutes per game. As for Lee, due to the Hayes injury he played more than many expected him to, appearing in 48 games (seven starts). Lee averaged 5.6 points, 2.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 0.7 steals in 16.3 minutes per game. Not great numbers, but he showed signs of being a capable emergency point guard moving forward.
Expanding this question to the off-guard position, Hamidou Diallo (restricted), Frank Jackson (restricted) and Wayne Ellington (unrestricted) will also be free agents. Detroit's rebuild doesn't project to be a quick fix, and having a few reliable veterans who can shepherd the younger players on the roster would be a wise approach to take.
Indiana (34-38, 9th): Is Nate Bjorkgren the right man for the job?
In his first season at the helm, Bjorkgren was on the receiving end of a lot of praise from some of his players early on. But things changed, as it was reported during the latter stages of the season that there was a lack of chemistry between the head coach and some of his most important players. Team president Kevin Pritchard didn't offer a vote of confidence in the days following the Pacers' loss to the Wizards in the play-in tournament, and it remains to be seen what Indiana will do this offseason. To fire a coach after just one season wouldn't be the best look for a team's lead executive, especially when Nate McMillan was fired after five straight playoff appearances (that tends to happen when your teams don't get out of the first round).
Roster-wise there don't appear to be too many questions with regard to free agency, with T.J. McConnell, Doug McDermott and JaKarr Sampson all set to hit the market, and McConnell stands to be in high demand. Myles Turner will be back to full strength, and players such as Malcolm Brogdon, Domantas Sabonis and Caris LeVert are all under contract for next season. But will Bjorkgren be the head coach? That's the big question for the Pacers to answer, as it will impact how all of the "pieces" fit into the team's puzzle.
Orlando (21-51, 14th): Can Orlando's young core stay healthy?
The Magic went all-in on a rebuild at the trade deadline, moving both the aforementioned Vucevic (Chicago) and Aaron Gordon (Denver). While young players such as Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac, Cole Anthony and Chuma Okeke have the potential to form a solid foundation down the line, injuries are a concern. Isaac missed all of this season after tearing his ACL in the bubble, and Fultz appeared in just eight games before he suffered an ACL tear. Add in Okeke (27 games missed) and Anthony (25) both missing time due to injury, and that may stand as the biggest issue that Orlando needs to address.
Once everyone is healthy, then the Magic can begin the task of evaluating the roster and figuring out who fits (and who doesn't) into the team's rebuild. Gary Harris could have some trade value to a contender as he's going into the final season of his contract, while Wendell Carter Jr. and Mo Bamba (who's struggled with injuries for much of his NBA career) are on the same rookie "clock" and can be restricted free agents at the end of the 2021-22 season. While Fultz and Isaac are set for the long-term, and players such as Okeke, Anthony and RJ Hampton are all on rookie deals, there's a lot for the Magic brain trust to sift through this offseason.
Toronto (27-45, 12th): Will Kyle Lowry return?
Lowry was considered to be one of the biggest names at the trade deadline, but the Raptors ultimately decided to hang onto him. He'll be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and it's expected that the ability to contend for a championship will have a significant impact on Lowry's decision? Does he think that the Raptors, who will be back in Toronto after spending this season in Tampa, can do enough to re-establish themselves as contenders? And if not, would Masai Ujiri (who hasn't signed an extension himself) look to work out a sign-and-trade as opposed to losing Lowry for nothing?
With Fred VanVleet and Malachi Flynn in the fold, Toronto is well-equipped to deal with life after Lowry in the backcourt if it comes to that. Add in OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, and Nick Nurse will have a solid nucleus to work with regardless of what happens with Lowry. But that's the biggest question for Toronto to answer, as the team has three picks to utilize in this summer's draft. Also worth keeping an eye on are the statuses of Gary Trent Jr. (restricted) and Khem Birch (unrestricted), who will both be free agents. Birch appears likely to be back, as he was a far better fit within the Raptors rotation than Aron Baynes. As for Trent Jr., the amount of money that he commands as a restricted free agent will likely determine where he plays his basketball next season.