NBA Second-half Resolutions

Anthony Davis
Rumors continue to swirl about various trades involving the Pelicans' Anthony Davis (#23).

New year, new me. That is the phrase heard around the world every January, as people attempt to better themselves for the year ahead of them. Likewise, NBA teams undoubtedly make new year’s resolutions with an eye on a more successful future.  Many NBA teams would prefer nothing more than a fresh start, but unfortunately for them, the season is more than halfway over and standings are beginning to take shape.

At this point in time, NBA clubs appear to fall into three main categories:  contending, tanking, and those stuck in the dreaded nomansland. Below, I have taken the liberty to share the New Year’s resolution for each NBA team, listing the teams in my predicted order of finish.  The teams are listed from worst to first, and this order was also used to project the draft order for the latest Hoops Prospects Mock Draft.  Playoff teams are denoted with asterisks (*), and non-playoff teams will qualify for the draft lottery.  

30. Cleveland Cavaliers

Draft a superstar to build around:

Talk about a fall off, huh? It’s not the first time that the Cavaliers have fallen this dramatically. Following the 2010 playoffs, LeBron James famously took his talents to South Beach to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat. After returning to The Land and bringing a championship to the city of Cleveland, James left for the second time, and this season’s disaster (9-39) is the result of his decision.

Similarly to 2011, the Cavaliers will have a top pick in the 2019 draft, and if this draft goes as well, the team will welcome a future superstar as they did in 2011 with Kyrie Irving. Adding a superstar is needed to revive the organization. Both Duke freshmen forwards R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson would help lift the franchise up.

The Cavaliers cemented a spot in the lottery by trading away veterans George Hill and Kyle Korver earlier this season. With the experienced guards gone, the organization now possess a 2021 first-round pick, two 2021 second-round picks, a 2020 second-round pick, and a 2022 second-round pick – all of which were acquired through dealing the veterans.

29. Phoenix Suns

Acquire players who can play defense, primarily Zion Williamson:

Oh, boy. The Suns (11-37) find themselves at rock bottom nearly every year, and it’s no surprise to anyone, except star guard Devin Booker, who claimed that he would never miss the playoffs again. The core of Booker and 2018 No. 1 pick DeAndre Ayton is a good foundation for the organization to build off of, but the team needs more firepower for the team to generate wins.

With the 2019 first pick in sights, the Suns will look to add another potential star in the mix. Adding a defensive stud through the draft or free agency would sincerely benefit the Suns since they have been ranked in the bottom three for defensive rating in the past three seasons. Selecting Duke freshman forward Zion Williamson would provide the franchise with a player who plays defense, unlike Booker and Ayton.

28. New York Knicks

Land a top-two pick:

Other than the Yankees, New York sports teams have not reached much success in recent years, and the Knicks (10-35) are not bringing much joy to the local fans. The Knicks have a plethora of young talent, but there is no clear standout other than star big man Kristaps Porzingis. Rookie forward Kevin Knox will be a big part to the future success of the team if he can seriously develop his game, especially his ability to create his own shot.

To add to the young core, the Knicks will be eyeing a top-two draft pick; however, they’ll need to lose as much as possible to obtain it. Phoenix and Cleveland, like New York, are eyeing the coveted duo of Duke freshmen (Williamson and Barrett) in the 2019 NBA Draft. The Knicks would be lucky to get their hands on one of those prospects. If, however, the Knicks land the third pick in the draft, it would be devastating for New Yorkers because this class seems to fall off dramatically after the two Duke frosh phenoms.

27. Atlanta Hawks

Prove that trading away Luka Doncic was the right move:

The Atlanta Hawks are in the midst of a hefty rebuild, so it’s not a surprise to see the team play so poorly. The franchise hopes that the young duo of forward John Collins and guard Trae Young can lead the team to success – which may be farther away than Hawks fans would like. The pair has the talent and potential to be special, but the rest of the team needs help. In the upcoming NBA draft, Atlanta will look to address this issue with two first-round picks: their own and the Dallas Mavericks’ pick acquired in the Luka Doncic-Young trade during last year’s NBA Draft.

This season is a lost cause for the Hawks (14-32), but with two first-round picks on the way and the development of Collins and Young, the Hawks could sneak into the playoffs as early as next season, given the weak Eastern Conference. However, this is all hypothetical, so for now, the Hawks should focus on proving to the world that selecting Young over Doncic was the right decision. As of right now, it doesn’t look good for the Hawks’ front office, but only time will tell if trading down was the best decision.

26. Chicago Bulls

Find players who want to win:

When thinking of inseparable pairs, I thought of peanut butter and jelly and Kermit and Miss Piggy. However, in recent years, one could argue that turmoil and the Chicago Bulls are inseparable. The Bulls (11-36) are attempting to combat this ongoing turmoil by firing head coach Fred Hoiberg after four years and hiring new head coach Jim Boylen. So far, Boylen has brought the intensity that Hoiberg lacked, but the team has yet to show improvement.

The problem isn’t acquiring talent, rather it’s adding players who want to win. The young core of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, Jabari Parker, and Wendell Carter Jr. seems to care more about the money than winning. It’s a culture problem in Chicago, and it’ll take more than a coaching change to fix it.

The first step for the front office will be drafting a blue-collar player that will grit and grind for victories. Step two will be landing a veteran or two in free agency in hopes they can mentor the young players. Both steps are not guaranteed to work, but it should push the Bulls in a positive direction. If not, the organization has to seriously consider trading some of the troublesome players.

25. Orlando Magic

Get a point guard, already:

The Magic (20-27) have oddly impressed this year. Don’t get me wrong, the Magic are still a sub-.500 team, but in a weak Eastern Conference, the team may slip into the playoffs. They are led by potential all-star center Nikola Vucevic, who is having a career year in his last year under contract. He’s currently averaging 20.5 points on efficient shooting splits of 51.8 percent from the field and 38.2 percent from deep. He also adds 12 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 2.0 combined steals and blocks.

The problem holding the Magic back is the lack of a point guard – a problem that they have refused to fix over the past few years. The organization opted to draft Texas star center Mohamed Bamba over the likes of Alabama point guard Collin Sexton and Kentucky point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. That decision has left journeyman D.J. Augustin to run the point and ultimately left Bamba stuck on the bench behind Vucevic.  Rumors have been circling that the Magic are talking with the Mavs about trading Bamba for disgruntled Dallas PG Dennis Smith, which is an interesting solution to the problem.

The team’s ceiling is only so high with Augustin running the offense, and barring a Bamba-Smith-like trade, Orlando’s first priority this summer should be to to add a point guard to its roster.  Unfortunately for the organization, this is one of the worst drafts in terms of point guards in recent memory. Ja Morant of Murray State, Darius Garland of Vanderbilt, Tre Jones of Duke, Shamorie Ponds of St. John’s, and Coby White of North Carolina are the potential first-round point guards. Regardless of the shallow selection, the franchise needs to add one of them.

If the draft fails, the front office could attempt to sign a free agent, but with no outstanding talent other than Vucevic, who will be a free agent this summer, it may be difficult to make a significant signing at point.

24. Charlotte Hornets

Trade Kemba Walker:

Kemba Walker is the face of the Hornets franchise; however, the organization needs to trade him before the season ends. That is, of course, if the Hornets plan on being more than a mediocre team because ever since the UConn star point guard was drafted in 2011, the franchise has been stuck in nomansland.

Over the past eight years with Walker, the Hornets have made the playoffs twice and never got past the first round. To make matters worse, the Hornets have had only two top-five picks since drafting Walker, and neither lived up to expectations; Kentucky forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was selected second in 2012 and Indiana big Cody Zeller was taken fourth overall in 2013.

Along with poor draft choices, the front office has struggled to put significant pieces around Walker due to the jam-packed payroll. Players such as Kidd-Gilchrist, Zeller, Nicolas Batum, and Marvin Williams are each making more money than Walker, which leaves little-to-no room for much-needed free agent signings.

Trading Walker should be mandatory for the Hornets (22-24). He is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and will likely demand a max contract. The Hornets are better off trading Walker now, getting something for the star, and beginning the rebuild through the 2019 draft. Maxing out Walker to get the sixth seed in the East (at best) is not worth the price anymore – it’s time to move on.

23. Memphis Grizzlies

Get younger:

Everyone endures a loss at some point in life because losing is inevitable. That is, of course, if you are not named Floyd Mayweather or Father Time. With that said, the Grizzlies are on the brink of being Father Time’s next victim. The two stars on the roster, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, are now 31 and 34 years old, respectively.

The star tandem has led the Grizzlies to an underwhelming 19-29 record despite a lackluster roster behind them. Conley is averaging a 19.8 points per game, which is good, but has shot poorly from the field (42.2 percent) and average from deep (35.4 percent). He has impressed, however, with his 6.1 assists and 1.8 turnovers per game. Gasol, however, has taken another step in the wrong direction. He is averaging 15.3 points and 8.5 rebounds on 43.4 percent from the floor and 35.4 percent from 3-point land.

Although the stars aren’t performing terribly, the team is just not well-rounded enough to be a playoff team. Rookie big man Jaren Jackson Jr. is the only other standout player on the roster. He’s averaging 13.5 points and 1.5 blocks in 25.7 minutes per game as a 19-year-old. He is, however, often in foul trouble – like at Michigan State – with an average of 3.7 fouls per game.

With so little help around the star duo, it would be too difficult and take too long to create a playoff team with the current assets at hand. It would be better if the organization parted ways with the stars while they have some value on the trade market. Shifting focus on the future and building the franchise around Jackson is the best approach to future success.

22. Washington Wizards

Blow up the roster:

Let’s get this straight: The Washington Wizards (20-26) need to restart. The core of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter Jr. has not worked whatsoever. At this point, it would be best for the organization to blow up the team and begin a colossal rebuild.

Rebuilding this team, however, will be easier said than done. The big three – if it’s even considered that – is owed nearly $93 million and makes up 85 percent of the Wizards’ cap room. Dealing any of the three players will be difficult since the suitor has to match the salary of the overpriced Wizards players. Beal is owed roughly $25 million this year, which is reasonable for him, but it still is hefty. He easily has the most trade value, so the Wizards will try to milk as many assets as possible out of their trade suitor.

Unlike Beal, Porter and Wall have horrendous contracts. Porter, being the worst of the trio, is owed about $26 million this season. Acquiring assets for him will be next to impossible, but it is a deed that needs to be done.  Wall, on the other hand, is a top-20 talent in the NBA, but his contract may be one of the worst in sports history. His extension kicks in next year, and he will be making about $38 million in 2019-2020. In 2022-2023, the All-Star guard will be making roughly $47 million. Dealing Wall will not be easy, either, as he is currently recovering from season-ending heel surgery.

Gutting a roster is typically the easiest part of the rebuild, but it may be the most difficult for the Wizards. The franchise needs to focus on priming the team for a rebuild as they enter the NBA Draft seeking a player to build around.

21. Dallas Mavericks

Get a blue-collar guard and trade Dennis Smith Jr.:

In what may be legendary power forward Dirk Nowitzki’s final year in the NBA, the Mavericks (20-26) are putting together a solid season, with rookie sensation Luka Doncic leading the way. At this point of the season, the Mavericks are just a few games out of a playoff spot. By trading the disgruntled Smith for a blue-collar guard to pair with Doncic, the team may be able to make a push for a playoff appearance.

Smith is not a bad player by any means, but his demeanor on the court is not charming. He seems to slack off too much and not care about his game like the players in Chicago. Removing his negative attitude from the lineup and locker room should bring immediate change to the team’s success – that is, of course, if the front office adds someone who puts winning first.

If, however, the Mavericks opt to keep Smith, they can look in the draft for a hard-nosed player. With that said, Dallas does not have a first-round pick available to them due to the Doncic-Trae Young trade. A second-round wing such as Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield is an ideal fit alongside the likes of Doncic.

20. Detroit Pistons *

Get a playmaker:

After shocking the world by acquiring Blake Griffin via trade last season, the Pistons are still stuck in nomansland. With Griffin last season, Detroit went 11-14 and failed to make the playoffs. This season, the team sits in a similar situation (20-26). The team is sub .500 and on the border of being a playoff team.

Despite being below .500, Griffin has been incredible so far. He is posting up a career high 26 points along with 8.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists on 48.1 percent from the field and 36.3 percent from downtown – his highest percentage from deep when he averages more than one three-point attempt per game.

Griffin isn’t the problem, nor is Andre Drummond who is averaging 16.3 points and 14.9 rebounds. It’s the lack of playmakers in the backcourt. Reggie Jackson, Reggie Bullock, Luke Kennard, and Bruce Brown have shared time starting this year with Ish Smith and Langston Galloway coming off the bench. None of the guards just mentioned have elite or even good playmaking skills. Griffin is stuck creating for himself and teammates in order for the offense to flow.

The Pistons need to go out and get themselves a guard that can feed the two star bigs. A good playmaker at the helm of the offense, such as Vanderbilt star guard Darius Garland, may unleash the full potential of the dynamic duo down low.

19. New Orleans Pelicans

Add bench depth:

Anthony Davis trade rumors are a daily topic on nearly every sports page, show, and podcast across the world. A trade would not be surprising, but it seems unlikely at this point. The Pelicans (22-25) have Davis locked up for the next couple of years on a contract similar to Bradley Beal, and for those that don’t know, Davis is far better than Beal.

Davis has a solid core around him with Jrue Holiday, Nikola Mirotic, Julius Randle, E’Twaun Moore, and Elfrid Payton. That’s five good players supporting Davis, so it’s reasonable to ask: Why is the team struggling?”

Well, the bench is atrocious. The Pelicans bench averages 29 points per game, which is ranked 29th in the league. Excluding the six players that I previously mentioned, the leading scorer is Darius Miller with a whopping 6.9 points. Former No. 3 pick Jahlil Okafor follows him up with 4.9 points per game, and Tim Frazier averages an unimpressive 4.7 points.

The bench needs to be fixed before the Pelicans fall too far into a hole. They just missed out on signing restricted free agent Patrick McCaw. Instead, the Raptors took him on a veteran’s minimum contract. The New Orleans front office needs to get to work and be ready for a busy trade deadline day.

18. Minnesota Timberwolves

Prove that they’re a playoff team:

The Minnesota Timberwolves ended their 13-season playoff drought last season, but only lasted five games against the No. 1 seeded Houston Rockets. The organization expected to be back in the playoffs this coming season, with star forward Jimmy Butler fully recovered from a torn meniscus, but Butler infamously demanded a trade from the ‘Wolves. With Butler out of town and Robert Covington and Dario Saric taking his place, the ’Wolves (22-24) have to prove to the world that they can compete without the disgruntled star.

Last season, the ’Wolves struggled immensely when Butler went down. They went 8-9 and nearly fell out of a playoff spot. It took Butler to return and lead the ’Wolves to victory over the Nuggets in overtime of the season finale to secure the eighth seed. Without Butler this season, the team has still struggled to prove that they have the ability to prosper in the tough Western Conference. The team has gone 17-15 since making the trade with the 76ers, and is currently sitting 13th in the Western Conference.

In attempt to better the franchise, the organization has decided to let go of Coach and General Manager Tom Thibodeau. The former defensive mastermind has coached the ’Wolves for the past three years, and each year,  Minnesota ranked in the bottom third of defensive rating. Along with his poor coaching, he made some questionable basketball deals that included bringing back many former Bulls players, hence the creation of the “TimberBulls.”

If the ’Wolves cannot prove to the world that they are a playoff team in the West, the front office will need to make changes as soon as possible. With that said, the organization will have to work around former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins’s hefty contract. He is locked in through the 2022-2023 season, where he is set to make $33 million. Unless Wiggins drastically improves his game to become an efficient second option for star center Karl-Anthony Towns, the ’Wolves will be kicking themselves for extending Wiggins.

17. Miami Heat *

Trade for a star:

Year-in and year-out, the Miami Heat (22-23) have a solid team and make the playoffs. They do this, however, with no star player on the roster. Point guard Goran Dragic and center Hassan Whiteside are the two notable names on the roster under 33 years old, but neither is considered a star.

This year, the Heat are led by 25-year-old shooting guard Josh Richardson, who averages 17.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 3.9 assists. Due to his productivity and relatively cheap contract (nearly $11 million per year), Richardson should be untouchable in any trade talks.

Whiteside, however, should be on the forefront of all trade discussions, especially since Bam Adebayo has proven his worth as younger and less troublesome defensive-minded center. Likewise, Dragic should be available, as his production has dropped with age, and he could opt out of his contract this summer. Players such as Kemba Walker or Bradley Beal are potential candidates to join the Heat. Both players would improve the team for this season – giving Dwyane Wade a final playoff run – and for the future.

If Miami would rather make a play for a younger piece, Pat Riley should call up Mark Cuban to inquire about point guard Dennis Smith Jr.  The 21-year-old has attitude problems, but head coach Erik Spoelstra could fix that and help groom the guard into a mature floor general to keep the Heat relevant past Wade’s career. In a deal involving Smith, the Mavericks should look to pair countrymen Dragic and Luka Doncic in the backcourt. The two Slovenian guards have grown close together, playing on the national team, and Dallas would be fortunate to have such a backcourt tandem with chemistry.

16. Sacramento Kings

Finish the season strong and focus on maturation:

The Kings have been one of the worst NBA franchises for the past 12 years, as they haven’t grazed the playoffs since 2006. However, the team is on the verge of becoming a strong contender in a tough Western Conference.

A pair of young guards De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield has led the team to its 24-23 record. Hield is averaging 20.3 points and 5.0 rebounds on 48.1 percent from the field and 45.7 percent from 3-point land. His partner in crime, Fox, has also shined with 17.4 points, 7.3 assists, and 1.8 steals on 46.2 percent shooting and 36.9 percent from downtown.

This duo, grouped with Bogdan Bogdanovic, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Marvin Bagley III, could make a serious push towards the playoffs. If, however, the Kings miss the playoffs for the 13th straight season, Sacramento should not be disappointed. The team’s main focus should be on maturing the young players and preparing to make a strong run in the next few seasons.

15. Brooklyn Nets *

Make the playoffs:

It’s almost been six years since the Nets front office decided to trade away multiple first-round picks for veterans Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry. Now, with the atrocious trade behind them, the Nets are pushing for their first playoff appearance since 2014.

The Nets (25-23), coming off a 28-win season last year, had a rough start to the 2018-2019 season, dropping 8 of the first 14 games and losing breakout player Caris LeVert to a gruesome injury. He was averaging 18.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists on 47 percent shooting from the floor.  

Following LeVert’s injury, the Nets went 19-15, and are currently the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. The entire team stepped up in his absence. Guards D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie are both averaging over 17 points and 5 assists per game. In addition, big man Jarrett Allen has manned the middle with 11.7 points and 8.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game.

With the second half of the season underway, the Nets will be pushing for the playoffs, and with LeVert potentially returning at the end of the season, Brooklyn could prove to be a challenge to a top-seeded team in the East.

14. Los Angeles Clippers

Make a splash in free agency:

Imagine trading away point guard Chris Paul and power forward Blake Griffin and letting center DeAndre Jordan walk in free agency over the course of two years, and the team is still not rebuilding. Well, that’s reality for the Clippers (25-21) as they sit at the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

Just last year, the organization hired Jerry West as a consultant for the front office that was ready to rebuild the roster. Head coach Doc Rivers and the players had a different idea, however. Rivers has been magical this season, as he revived a team that looked like they would need years in the lottery to recover from the dismantling of Lob City.

Tobias Harris is the quiet leader of the team, averaging 20.9 points and 8 rebounds on efficient 50/44/89 shooting splits. He shares a locker room with Danilo Gallinari, a 19-point scorer, Lou Williams, another 19-point scorer and consistent Sixth Man of the Year candidate, and Montrezl Harrell, a gritty 25-year-old big man.

The chemistry on the roster has been strong, but it may weaken if the Clippers part ways with Harris in free agency.  He is set for a big pay day – a well-deserved one – but the Clippers have shown serious interest in Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard and Warriors forward Kevin Durant. The Clippers will have two max free-agent slots this summer, so letting Harris walk is certainly an option if Los Angeles can land both superstars.  With both superstars, they still may not be the most relevant basketball franchise in Los Angeles, but they will definitely be the best team.

13. San Antonio Spurs *

Find Gregg Popovich’s replacement:

The legendary Gregg Popovich may call it a career following this NBA season, which opens up the Spurs head coaching position for the first time since 1996. Popovich has been leaning towards retirement ever since future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan retired, so the organization should not be surprised when Pop ends his tenure.

The search for his replacement may not be difficult either. I would imagine that Popovich and the Spurs organization have been grooming someone to be Pop’s successor. Whether the search is difficult or not, the decision will be crucial, and the selected candidate will have more pressure than any other coach in any other sport worldwide. A losing record or any sign of failure could cost the new head coach his or her job in a heartbeat.

The Spurs (27-21) will likely promote an in-house assistant or hire one of Popovich’s former assistant coaches. Doing so will allow Popovich’s ageless system to be continued even past his tenure. It would be quite surprising if the organization moved on from the system that has brought the franchise just over two decades of winning records and five NBA Titles.

12. Portland Trail Blazers *

Win or blow it up:

The Trail Blazers (29-19) are in a similar situation to that of the Raptors’:  both teams find a way to win a lot of regular season games, but they never find much success in the postseason. Unlike the Blazers – at least up to this point – the Raptors acted on their shortcomings and traded away their franchise guard DeMar DeRozan for a superstar with an expiring contract, Kawhi Leonard.

Portland needs to consider following in the Raptors’ footsteps because since drafting Damian Lillard, the Blazers have failed to get past the second round of the playoffs. Splitting up the dynamic duo of Lillard and off-guard C.J. McCollum may seem odd, but it may need to happen for the Blazers to have a chance of progressing to a championship.

Although the plan should be to split the duo, the organization should try to remain competitive. Ideally, the Blazers keep Lillard, trade McCollum, and add a wing that can dominate on both ends of the floor. This will give the Blazers an identity on defense – something they’ve lacked for the past few years (15th in defensive rating in the NBA this year). In addition to adding a two-way wing, the front office should look for a player that can play well off the ball. Lillard dominates the ball, so it would be beneficial to the team if the newly added wing could find ways to score without becoming a ball stopper on offense.

11. Los Angeles Lakers *

Hold off on trades and sign a superstar in free agency:

Over the past couple weeks, there has been plenty of speculation over a potential Anthony Davis trade to the Lakers (25-23). A pairing of LeBron James and Davis would be incredible to watch, but by acquiring Davis, the Lakers would not be able to afford a max free agent in the offseason.

To maximize the Lakers’ roster and success, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka need to sign a max free agent such as Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, or Jimmy Butler in the offseason before trading for Davis. If the Lakers sign a max free agent first, they will still be able to trade their young assets for Davis. It would be wise for the organization to part ways with a package that includes 2015 No. 2 pick Brandon Ingram, draft picks, and either 2017 No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball or former Villanova standout Josh Hart for Davis.

A big three of James, Davis, and Leonard, Durant, Thompson, or Butler, along with Kyle Kuzma and veterans Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, and Tyson Chandler should make the Lakers the favorites to win the NBA Title. If Johnson and Pelinka pull the trigger on Davis too early, however, the next superteam might not materialize.

10. Utah Jazz *

Assemble a big three:

After watching star forward Gordon Hayward walk away in free agency, the Jazz reached the second round of the playoffs last season, behind Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and Rookie of the Year runner-up Donovan Mitchell.  Due to the success surrounding the organization, Utah (26-22) came into the 2018-2019 season with massive expectations despite the Western Conference improving yet again. Much of these expectations were placed on Mitchell to build upon his outstanding rookie campaign, and as of lately, his maturity has started to show. In his last 15 games, the sophomore guard is averaging 25.5, 4.3 rebounds, and 4.5 assists on 46.1 percent shooting from the field and an impressive 37.7 percent from distance.

Mitchell’s improved game and maturity is exceptional for a year-two player; however, his play, along with Gobert’s stellar rim protection, is not enough to cut it in the deep Western Conference. Every team is in the playoff race other than the Suns, so the Jazz will need to either have their current role players make significant improvement in their games or add another star to assemble a big three with Gobert and Mitchell.

Acquiring a third piece to the puzzle could push the Jazz into the top-tier of teams in the West, but it is more likely for the front office to wait till free agency to make a splash. The organization will have about $20 million to spend due to point guard Ricky Rubio, guard Thabo Sefolosha, and center Ekpe Udoh all entering free agency. Forwards such as Tobias Harris and Khris Middleton could be potential signings for the Jazz, if both sides are interested.

The money will be on the table, so the Jazz won’t have to worry about that; however, the organization and city will have to find a way to convince players such as Harris and Middleton to relocate to Salt Lake City. Another strong postseason run could be the icing on the cake to secure a significant free agent signing in Utah.

9. Philadelphia 76ers *

Play nicely together and add depth:

Despite adding a star forward to create yet another big three in the NBA, the 76ers (31-17) have more issues now than before the blockbuster trade. Jimmy Butler has provided a sense of leadership to the team, but with that, tension has developed. Star center Joel Embiid voiced his frustration about his limited role with Butler on the court, but more recently, Butler has butt heads with head coach Brett Brown.

In addition to a tension-filled locker room, the team lacks depth and is projected to lose more in free agency. Forwards Robert Covington and Dario Saric, both of whom were dealt to Minnesota, were key contributors on the both ends of the floor. Last season, the 76ers finished with 52 wins for the first time since the 2000-2001 season, with Saric averaging 14.6 points while Covington averaging 12.6.  Both were solid outside shooters and defenders, and the 76ers’ lack of the former will likely be their undoing in the postseason.

Along with the loss of both starting forwards from last year, sharpshooting guard J.J. Redick is set to become a free agent this summer. He turns 35 in June but has yet to win an NBA Title despite being in the playoffs every year of his 13-year career. With that said, he may opt to chase a ring elsewhere since the 76ers seem to be going down a path of destruction with Butler.

Seemingly, Butler has cause problems with every team he’s been on, so it’s a real possibility that the 76ers’ tension grows even further. Despite this, signing Butler should be a serious consideration this summer. Without Butler, the 76ers will be missing both forward spots – arguably the most crucial position in today’s NBA. A Butler signing should, however, take a backseat to the pursuit of Klay Thompson or Kawhi Leonard. Both stars are better players than Butler and would also improve the team chemistry since neither have ego issues.

8. Boston Celtics *

Decide on a direction:

Every year the Celtics are rumored to acquire a superstar player with their numerous assets, and this year is no different. Anthony Davis has been mentioned in potential trades, again, to Boston. Despite this, there’s been no trade discussions, so there’s no reason to believe he will end up in Boston.

The rumors – regardless of how true they are – lead many to question whether the Celtics (29-18) should seriously consider making an offer for the New Orleans superstar. It would mean that Danny Ainge would have to give up either veteran Al Horford or Gordon Hayward and a mixture of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and draft picks. It would be a hefty price to pay, even for a top-five player, which Davis arguably is.

If the Celtics can make a deal for Davis without letting go of Tatum, – regardless of what Tatum would do – Ainge should pull the trigger without question. Tatum is the most valuable asset that the Celtics have – until Kyrie Irving resigns – so keeping him and obtaining Davis would be monumental for the organization.

The trade would put a dent into the Celtics’ depth, but Davis’ production on both ends of the floor should make up for it. The deal would also improve the Celtics’ chances to win a title not only this year, but in the coming years as well. With the Warriors dynasty potentially coming to an end, the Larry O’Brien Trophy will be up for grabs, and the Irving-Davis led Celtics should be favorites to pop bottles in June for the first time since 2008.

7. Houston Rockets *

Win an NBA Title:

Sure, we could all argue whether the Rockets would be NBA Champions if point guard Chris Paul was healthy in the Western Conference Finals, but he wasn’t and the Rockets ultimately fell to the Warriors.

This season, the Rockets (26-20) are going to have a much harder challenge come playoff time. In a Western Conference that is as talented as it ever was, the Rockets find themselves stuck in the middle of the pack. That is, however, with Paul sidelined, and superstar James Harden making a strong case to win back-to-back MVPs. Between December 8 to now, the reigning MVP is averaging 41.3 points, 8.4 assists, 7.1 rebounds, and 2.0 steals on 44 percent from the field and 38.4 percent from three while leading the Rockets to an 15-7 record.

With the playoffs approaching, the Rockets need to buckle down and be ready to make a push for an NBA Title before Paul’s prime ends. Every round will be tough for the Rockets, but if the team stays healthy, particularly Paul, the team has a chance to raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June.

6. Oklahoma City Thunder *

Get healthy:

The Thunder (28-18) have put together an impressive season, with Russell Westbrook and Paul George leading the way.  The club’s roster this year has the potential to be the most lethal since the 2012 title run, but that will only be possible if the whole team is healthy come playoff time.

Lockdown wing Andre Roberson – the most crucial player injured – has been sidelined since January 2018 with a knee injury. Since then, he suffered two setbacks that required multiple knee procedures. He’s arguably the Thunder’s best perimeter defender, so getting him back for the playoffs will be crucial to locking up the opponents’ best players.  

Oddly enough, the Thunder have been phenomenal on defense without Roberson. They currently have the fourth best defensive rating in the entire NBA (105.5). However, getting Roberson back would give the bench more depth and pair George with another lethal perimeter defender.

This season has been special for the Thunder, and the playoffs will be the time for Westbrook and George to prove their worth even further. It’ll be interesting and fun to watch the tandem perform, given that Westbrook’s usage rate and points per game has dipped, giving George more freedom to create on offense. Barring any major injuries, the superstar duo, Steven Adams, an improved bench, and the return of Roberson could make the 2019 playoffs one to remember for Oklahoma City.

5. Indiana Pacers *

Get Victor Oladipo a sidekick:

The Pacers (31-15) have been impressive this season, with nearly every player stepping up each game, but let’s make this clear: the current roster consists of star guard Victor Oladipo and basically a group of average players that play hard.

The starting five of Oladipo, Darren Collison, Myles Turner, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Thaddeus Young is not an intimidating lineup on paper. Even adding Sixth Man of the Year candidate Domantas Sabonis to the mix doesn’t make the team much better. The intensity and passion that each Pacer plays is what pushes Indiana into the upper echelon of teams.

Despite how hard this team plays, the ceiling is only so high with a lackluster roster. The organization should consider giving Oladipo a star sidekick to improve the Pacers’ chances of making the Conference Finals. It’s important for this partner in crime to be a blue-collar player to keep the Pacers’ hardworking style intact.

Charlotte Hornets star point guard Kemba Walker is set to be a free agent this summer, and the price to acquire him may not be too high, though Michael Jordan and the Hornets do not want to let Walker walk (ha) for nothing. Acquiring Walker would immediately improve the Pacers, and give Oladipo someone to consistently rely on.

Acquiring Walker and his expiring contract would be a risk worth taking for the Pacers organization. They’ll have enough cap space to offer him a max deal, giving the Pacers a chance to retain the star backcourt tandem of Oladipo and Walker.

4. Milwaukee Bucks *

Win in the playoffs:

Milwaukee has a unique superstar in Giannis Antetokounmpo, so it has been quite disappointing that the Bucks have failed to reach the second round in the three playoff appearances with the Greek Freak. This year, the Bucks (34-12) currently own top-three record in the NBA, so maybe – just maybe – the team will break out in the playoffs.

Milwaukee has turned it around following last season’s average regular season and underwhelming playoff series against the shorthanded Celtics. Now with former Coach of the Year – and front runner for this year’s award – Mike Budenholzer running the show, the Bucks have an experienced leader heading into the playoffs. Eyes will be on the Bucks to see if they can break their playoff curse and finally crack the second round – at least.

In the second half of the season, the team will be looking to capture home-court advantage throughout the playoffs by locking up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. With Antetokounmpo having an MVP-caliber season, the team has its sights on the best record in the NBA.

3. Denver Nuggets *

Add veterans:

Despite entering the season as the youngest team in the NBA, the Nuggets were expected to make a jump into the upper echelon of teams in the league. Midway through the season, and it’s clear: The Nuggets (31-14) are a top-tier team and have shattered expectations.

The youthful team is led by star center Nikola Jokic (23 years old) who averages an impressive statline of 19.6 points, 10 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.3 steals on 51/32/84 shooting splits. Jokic is supported by a great up-and-coming backcourt of Jamal Murray (21 years old) and Gary Harris (24 years old).

A strong finish to the season should be expected of the Nuggets, barring any injuries. However, making a deep playoff run with such a young roster is worrisome. Forward Paul Millsap, in his 13th year of his NBA career, is the only significant veteran on the team. Furthermore, only two players have more than one year of experience in the postseason: Millsap and Mason Plumlee.

In such a stacked and experienced Western Conference, the Nuggets are vulnerable to veteran teams such as the Rockets, Spurs, Thunder, and Warriors in the playoffs. If the Nuggets want to have more than just an outstanding regular season, they’ll have to add a veteran or two to support the youngins in the playoffs.

2. Golden State Warriors *

Resign Kevin Durant:

The goal is no different this season for the Warriors (33-14): Win a title.  And while I am projecting Toronto to have the best regular-season record, I expect the Warriors to retain their crown.

Winning four championships in five years would be historic and solidify the team as a dynasty, if it wasn’t already considered one. Though, with that said, the Warriors’ dynasty may come to an end this summer. Superstar forward Kevin Durant is entering free agency and may want to continue his legacy outside of the Bay Area.

Durant has received heavy criticism since joining the 73-9 Warriors team in July of 2016. The NBA community has adjusted to the stacked Warriors, but fans have been questioning how great Durant will rank all time if he remains on the Warriors. The world wants to see Durant win a championship on his own terms, not with a stacked Golden State roster.

The Slim Reaper may succumb to the pressure and take his talents elsewhere. The Clippers will likely be the front runners due to their ability to sign two max free agents, but teams such as the Thunder, Lakers, Knicks, and of course, the Warriors will be in contention.

The Warriors will have to do whatever it takes to retain the superstar forward because winning a fifth NBA title without Durant and an aging bench will be difficult.

1. Toronto Raptors *

Convince Kawhi Leonard to stay:

The Toronto Raptors took a huge risk by trading away star guard DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for an arguably top-five player in Kawhi Leonard on an expiring contract. So far, the bold move seems to have been a calculated risk worth taking. The Raptors (35-13) have a top-three record in the NBA and have shown no signs of slowing down.

Leonard, who is expected to receive a supermax contract this summer, is averaging 27.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.9 steals on efficient 50.4 percent shooting from the field and 36.8 percent from deep. These stats, and Leonard’s pending free agency should not take away from point guard Kyle Lowry’s solid year. Lowry is averaging 13.9 points and a career-high 9.4 assists on 41.5 percent from the field. His stats are never “wow” fans, but his leadership on both ends of the floor has been impressive to say the least. Between Lowry’s composure on offense and the willingness to put his body on the line on defense, the Raptors have one of the best the leaders and floor generals in the league.

Regardless how well the team has played together so far this season (even when Leonard sits), the organization needs to resign the superstar. Without Leonard, the Raptors will certainly fall into rebuild mode within the next two years. Lowry, given that he’s a late bloomer, is nearing the end of his prime at age 32 and will not be able to keep Toronto afloat in an Eastern Conference that is continuing to get better each year.

About Brendan O'Sullivan 8 Articles
Brendan O’Sullivan is currently majoring in journalism at Quinnipiac University, and is a regular contributor to HoopsProspects.com as a writer and analyst. He also contributes to The Knicks Lead, Allsportsnews.com, and FancredSports.com.