Offseason outlook for all 30 teams
Boston has nine unrestricted free agents, including Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen
Brooklyn and Dallas are poised to duel for top free agent Deron Williams
Houston will be active; Lakers to shake it up?; Wolves, Suns need wing scoring
With the draft set for Thursday and the free-agent negotiating period beginning on Sunday, here's a look at the needs and key decisions for each team:
Top Free Agents: Kirk Hinrich, Tracy McGrady, Jason Collins
Draft Picks: Nos. 23 and 43
Will the Hawks finally break up their core trio of Al Horford, Josh Smith and Joe Johnson? Is there a way for them to improve even if they do trade one or more of them? Those are the questions facing management in the wake of a fifth straight season in which Atlanta made the playoffs but fell short of the conference finals despite handsome payments to their three stars that rose to a combined $43.4 million last season and will climb to $45 million next season.
With a more punishing luxury tax penalty built into the new collective bargaining agreement, it won't be easy for Atlanta to move Johnson (owed an average of more than $22 million over the next four years) or even Horford (owed $12 million each of the next four years) and get value in return. Smith is much more attractive with his expiring $13.2 million contract, but he is coming off a career year in which he led the team in points, rebounds and blocks, finished second in assists and anchored a defense that was sixth in points allowed per possession, according to Basketball-Reference.
Even if Atlanta is able to get to the next level with an improving nucleus that also includes point guard Jeff Teague, it risks getting nothing in return for Smith at the end of the season. But re-signing Smith without trading Johnson or Horford ensures an even more expensive status quo. Unless the team can steal a quality center or swingman with the 23rd pick, there is no easy scenario going forward.
Top Free Agents: Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, Mickael Pietrus
Draft Picks: 21, 22, 51
With nine unrestricted free agents, the Celtics are certainly in position to blow up the team after a five-year run with the Big Three of Paul Pierce, Garnett and Allen. But with a couple of superb cornerstones in Pierce and point guard Rajon Rondo, along with a solid sidekick for Rondo in defensive ace Avery Bradley, Boston likely will retool more than rebuild. Whether or not the Celtics can persuade Garnett to return, they need at least one classic big man who can score and rebound in the low post. And the frontcourt becomes even more of a priority if KG signs elsewhere or retires, or if power forward Bass leaves after opting out of his contract. To seriously contend, the Celtics also need a shooting guard taller than the 6-2 Bradley who can fill it up from outside -- like Allen, in other words, though the soon-to-be 37-year-old is no cinch to come back. The Celtics have two first-round picks and the potential for significant cap space, assets they could use to help lift an offense that finished 27th in points per possession.
Top Free Agents: Deron Williams, Brook Lopez (restricted), Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries
Draft Picks: 57
The grand design of billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov was to sacrifice lottery picks and stockpile stars in time to make a big splash when the team moved from New Jersey to its new arena in Brooklyn next season. That blueprint now hangs in the balance. If neither Williams nor Wallace plays again for the Nets, the team will have squandered its past three lottery picks -- its own 2010 selection, Derrick Favors, and its 2011 pick (which turned into Enes Kanter) in the Williams trade with Utah, and its 2012 pick (No. 6) to acquire Wallace from Portland -- for no future return. The Nets will continue to pursue a long-term contract with Williams in hopes of resurrecting the original plan of uniting him with Dwight Howard, whose deal with Orlando expires next season. But without Williams and/or Wallace, the danger is that a desperate Prokhorov will compound his woes and overpay on his Plan B acquisitions, as he did with Travis Outlaw two seasons ago.
Top Free Agents: D.J. Augustin (R)
Draft Picks: 2, 31
Pity the Bobcats, who finished with the lowest winning percentage in NBA history last season, ranked last in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and then, despite having the best odds for winning the No. 1 pick, finished second to New Orleans in the lottery. That means almost certainly missing out on consensus top pick Anthony Davis, who would have made an immediate impact in a frontcourt rotation that features raw, 20-year-old leaper Bismack Biyombo and jump-shooting 7-footer Byron Mullens.
It is no exaggeration to say that the Bobcats need help everywhere: Their best player last season, swingman Gerald Henderson, would have trouble cracking the starting lineup of many teams. None of their seven free agents is vital to the future (the top performer, 6-foot point guard Augustin, is redundant with Kemba Walker), and if the team cleans house and amnesties often-injured underachiever Corey Maggette ($10.9 million contract for next season), it would create even more flexibility to pursue free agents (a tough sell) or trade players into what could be $20-plus million in cap space.
Top Free Agents: Omer Asik (R)
Draft Picks: 29
What the Bulls need most, of course, is a healthy body for Derrick Rose, who will miss at least the first part of next season while recovering from knee surgery. Assuming they retain Asik and do not trade Luol Deng, the Bulls' frontcourt rotation is staunch, deep, expensive and settled. But in the backcourt, 34-year-old shooting guard Rip Hamilton disappointed because of age and injuries, and Rose's backups, C.J. Watson and John Lucas III, were found wanting in the crucible of the playoffs. Taking a luxury-tax hit for a better backup (and early-season starter) for Rose and an upgrade at shooting guard would be worth it if it takes coach Tom Thibodeau's team to the next level.
Top Free Agents: Antawn Jamison, Alonzo Gee (R), Anthony Parker
Draft Picks: 4, 24, 33, 34
The Cavs have Rookie of the Year and former No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving at point guard and a frontcourt that includes high-motor center Anderson Varejao and power forward Tristan Thompson, the No. 4 pick in the 2011 draft. With Jamison set to depart, and with the shooting guard position not producing much offense, Cleveland sorely needs a wing scorer. The team also could use athletic defenders and a legitimate big man to match up with the more brutish 7-footers in the game. The good news is that Cleveland will have four top 34 picks and major cap space to address their weaknesses.
Top Free Agents: Ben Wallace
Draft Picks: 9, 39, 44
Detroit's biggest need is fiscal discipline. When president Joe Dumars signed shooting guard Ben Gordon and forward Charlie Villanueva to five-year contracts totaling more than $95 million back in July 2009, it damaged the team's salary cap flexibility and, once both proved to be major busts, doomed the team's chances on the court. Throwing good money after bad right after the lockout last December, Dumars re-signed past-his-prime forward Tayshaun Prince for $28 million over four years and guard Rodney Stuckey -- whose skill set is redundant to those of Gordon and 2011 top pick Brandon Knight -- for up to $25.5 million over three years. Despite the presence of Stuckey, Gordon and Knight, the Pistons lack a quality pure point guard, which is why they ranked 28th in assists and 26th in points scored per possession last season.
Center Greg Monroe was a bright spot in his second season, but he's a finesse-oriented big man better suited to playing power forward alongside a classic rim protector at center. Unfortunately, Detroit is already paying Jason Maxiell, Jonas Jerebko and Villanueva a combined $17 million to be the power forward next season, while the team's lone backup center, Wallace, is prepared to retire. The Pistons could use their first-round pick to get Monroe some help up front.
Top Free Agents: Roy Hibbert (R), George Hill (R), Louis Amundson
Draft Picks: 26
The Pacers appear to be in fabulous shape after their best season in eight years, during which they joined Miami and San Antonio as the only teams to finish in the top 10 in points scored and allowed per possession. Indiana has a good deal of cap room and the ability to match offers for its top free agent, All-Star Hibbert, who could command a big contract on the heels of what centers DeAndre Jordan (four years, $43 million), Nene (five years, $65 million), Marc Gasol (four years, $57.5 million) and Tyson Chandler (four years, $55.4 million) received last year. Point guard will be a position to watch: Indiana ranked 29th in assists last season with Hill and Darren Collison (a free agent next summer) playing most of the minutes. Also, the drop-off from Hibbert to Amundson at center, and from David West to Tyler Hansbrough at power forward, is steep, and given the team's bruising, physical style, it might be prudent to upgrade the frontcourt depth.
Top Free Agents: None
Draft Picks: 27
A steady stream of underwhelming centers have toiled in the pivot in the two years since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh united in Miami. They have been old (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Erick Dampier), unseasoned (Dexter Pittman), chronically injured (Eddy Curry) and undersized (the 6-9 Joel Anthony has played more minutes than anyone at the position the past two seasons). Another quality big man is the Heat's biggest need, even if they intend to play small-ball more often. But they've done pretty well without one.
Top Free Agents: Ersan Ilyasova, Carlos Delfino, Kwame Brown
Draft Picks: 12, 42
Hyper-disciplined, defensive-oriented coach Scott Skiles surprisingly bought into the run-and-gun approach last season as Milwaukee played at the third-fastest pace and went 12-9 with shameless gunners Brandon Jennings and midseason acquisition Monta Ellis in the backcourt. But the unsung hero in that arrangement was Ilyasova, who, along with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, backstopped the sieve-like perimeter defense of Jennings and Ellis, was a beast on the offensive glass (3.3 per game in 27.6 minutes) cleaning up the starting guards' many misses and ranked second in the NBA in three-point shooting at 45.5 percent. Now Ilyasova is a free agent, and though Milwaukee has frontcourt players who can defend (Mbah a Moute, Ekpe Udoh) and score (Drew Gooden), Ilyasova was the only front-line Buck who could do both in the wake of center Andrew Bogut's departure. To balance the go-go attitude of the backcourt scorers with Skiles' appreciation for hard-nosed fundamentals, the Bucks need an unselfish but skilled, defensive-oriented big man.
NEW YORK KNICKS
Top Free Agents: Jeremy Lin (R), Landry Fields (R), Steve Novak, J.R. Smith
Draft Picks: 48
Assuming Lin returns -- and a recent arbitrator's ruling, if it holds up on appeal, means that the Knicks do not have to use their mid-level exception to re-sign the point guard and potentially can keep it available for another player -- the major pieces are locked in and need to learn how to work together. (Though the Knicks played better without Amar'e Stoudemire, his injury history and big, uninsured contract make him very difficult to deal, and owner James Dolan won't countenance a trade of Carmelo Anthony.) The best strategy is retaining the cultural change toward tenacious defense that Tyson Chandler fostered last season (much as he had in Dallas the year before), with the healthy recovery of perimeter stopper Iman Shumpert from knee surgery a key component of that process. On offense, coach Mike Woodson has to find a system that blends isolation plays for Anthony with pick-and-rolls for Stoudemire, and both stars need to up their energy level and commitment to team play. The Knicks have plenty of talent -- indeed, they're stuck with it for the near future. What they need next season is more character and familiarity.
Top Free Agents: Ryan Anderson (R), Jameer Nelson (player option)
Draft Picks: 19, 49
By now we should all have learned that nobody knows what Dwight Howard is going to do -- including Howard. The NBA's premier center, who will be a free agent next summer, has agonized and vacillated for months now over whether to stay with the Magic, re-sign with the Magic, demand a trade or simply wait for his chance to hit the market. The Magic can't afford to lose him -- but if his leaving is inevitable, they have to get something in return. Aside from Anderson, a restricted free agent, there is no other crucial cog on the roster. Nelson isn't certain to pick up his $8.6 million player option for this season. Small forward Hedo Turkoglu is past his prime and owed $23 million over the next two years. Along with Jason Richardson and J.J. Redick, all these players are three-point shooters who are more effective with Howard dominating down low.
To state the obvious then, if Howard leaves, the Magic need at least a quality center and a wing player who can score and pass off the dribble. And if Howard stays, Orlando needs younger players to upgrade the defense and retain former coach Stan Van Gundy's inside-outside offense -- and a coach who in Howard's eyes is apparently less abrasive than Van Gundy.
Top Free Agents: Lou Williams, Spencer Hawes, Jodie Meeks (R)
Draft Picks: 15, 45, 54
Starting power forward Elton Brand could be amnestied, starting center Hawes is a free agent and the team already lacks the sort of bruising but skilled low-post performer who can get to the free-throw line and limit opposing points in the paint. Coach Doug Collins has successfully molded a deep rotation that emphasized its length and quickness on the perimeter to finish third in points allowed per possession while committing the fewest turnovers. But the absence of a star, go-to scorer on the wing (sixth man Williams led the team with 14.9 points) or a low-post anchor led to a No. 20 ranking in points per possession and a particularly difficult time generating offense late in close games.
Top Free Agents: Jerryd Bayless (R)
Draft Picks: 8, 37, 56
Coach Dwane Casey came in last season and transformed the culture of the team from soft and nonchalant to disciplined and hard-nosed -- especially on defense, where Toronto jumped from 30th the last two seasons in points per possession to 14th, with essentially the same personnel. Among the Raptors' needs is a point guard to replace Jose Calderon, a capable, sure-handed floor general in the half-court offense but one Raptor whose defense didn't improve much under Casey. Calderon has one year and $10.6 million left on his contract. The team could also use a classic big man to body up opposing centers while Jonas Valanciunas matures. (Valanciunas, the No. 5 pick in 2011, is expected to join the team from Europe for the 2012-13 season). In addition, Toronto would benefit from a wing scorer to provide points off the bench or push DeMar DeRozan into that role.
Top Free Agents: Cartier Martin, James Singleton
Draft Picks: 3, 32
The Wizards removed the possibility for big cap space this summer and next by acquiring Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor from New Orleans. Ariza and Okafor add to a crowded frontcourt that includes late-season surprise Kevin Seraphin, steady banger Trevor Booker, 2011 first-round picks Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton, high-priced center Nene and amnesty candidate Andray Blatche. Now the Wizards have to find a capable shooting guard who can defend and select shots better than Jordan Crawford alongside point guard and former No. 1 pick John Wall. The Wizards ranked 28th in three-point accuracy and 25th in three-pointers made, with Crawford shooting 28.9 percent from long range and only 40 percent overall in his second season.