In the National Basketball Association, executives and fans have already shifted their focus to the offseason. In the Eastern Conference, NBA teams are desperate to simply slow down LeBron James. Out West, “small ball” is all the rage, in matching up against the high-octane Golden State Warriors.
For many, the offseason is a time of optimism, when a series of smart personnel moves can make all the difference between the lottery and a deep playoff run. In this zero-sum game, however, there will be losers who swap out superstar talent for pennies on the dollar and draft busts destined for the D-League.
The following four franchises will likely see their fortunes collapse, going from serious contenders to painful rebuilders. The ghost of Sam Hinkie may remind these beleaguered franchises to “trust the process.”
1. Chicago Bulls
Last week, Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks rolled the dice, shipping Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon, and Jerian Grant off to Chicago in exchange for Derrick Rose. The move marked the end of an era in Chicago, where it was once assumed that the hometown boy would make good, after going in the top of the 2008 draft.
Instead, a series of devastating injuries derailed D-Rose’s career and explosiveness, leaving the Chicago faithful questioning his commitment to the game. Jimmy Butler, for his part, put up 21 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game last season. Butler’s emergence forced a logjam at guard with the ball-dominant swingman noting that he was certain either he or Rose would be dealt.
Moving forward, Chicago brass has yet to commit to Butler as the face of the franchise. He put off many of his teammates last season as he brashly attempted to assert control over the locker room. The 2015–16 Bulls went 42-20 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
The Bulls, however, never missed the postseason with taskmaster Tom Thibodeau stalking the sidelines; they were one of the larger thorns in LeBron’s side. Now, the franchise appears to lack direction, with Rose moving, and Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Pau Gasol all seemingly with one foot out the door.
2. Dallas Mavericks
Mark Cuban seems desperate to reestablish Dallas as a prime destination for free agents, especially after being spurned by Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Marc Gasol in recent seasons. Last year, DeAndre Jordan verbally committed to the Mavs, before changing his mind, barricading himself at home, and signing back with the LA Clippers.
The 2015–16 Mavericks did sign Wesley Matthews and Deron Williams as consolation prizes and managed to go 42-40 to eke out a playoff berth. The team already expressed strong interest in free agents Mike Conley, Hassan Whiteside (who will likely stay in Miami) — and Nicolas Batum (who re-signed with the Charlotte Hornets). The expectation is that the Mavs will let Chandler Parsons walk to free up cap space and clear minutes for the feisty Justin Anderson in the starting lineup.
For Dallas, only Dirk Nowitzki is untouchable. The 38-year-old put up 18 points per game last season. The 2016 offseason, however, will implode on the Mavs, if Conley, Whiteside, and Batum all spurn Mark Cuban and his checkbook.
By then, Parsons and Williams may have already skipped town. A Dallas squad rolling out Anderson, Ray Felton, and a fossilized Nowitzki can punch their ticket to the 2017 lottery.
3. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks kicked off this offseason by participating in a three-team trade with the Pacers and Jazz that shipped Jeff Teague off to Indiana and George Hill to Utah. In exchange, the Hawks were granted rights to power forward Taurean Prince, the 12th overall pick in the 2016 draft.
Without Teague, the Hawks will hand the keys to the offense over to the speedy, but erratic Dennis Schroder. Against this backdrop, Al Horford and Kent Bazemore loom large as unrestricted free agents ready to hit the market. The rumor mill already links Horford to both the Oklahoma City Thunder and Boston Celtics.
A Thunder lineup featuring Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Horford would immediately vault OKC to being the favorite in the West. At the same time, Hawk management may balk at paying up for Bazemore, who could command a mega-deal elsewhere in this inflated market.
As recently as 2014–15, the Hawks raced out to a 60-22 regular season and were the darlings of the NBA with four All-Stars. From there, Atlanta was swept out of the playoffs through two consecutive seasons. They’re now looked down upon as a curious sideshow at best. Cleveland’s James and bad moves from the front office would bury the Hawks at the bottom of the standings.
4. Miami Heat
In 2014, James shocked the world and announced that he was returning to Cleveland after four consecutive trips to the Finals and two championships. Earlier this month, James made good upon his promise and delivered a title to Northeast Ohio after a 52-year drought.
In his wake, Pat Riley was left muttering about “smiling faces with hidden agendas.” The 2015–16 Miami Heat went 48-34 and lost a hard-fought, seven-game series to Toronto in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. For the playoffs, the Heat shut down Chris Bosh with a blood clot condition, while Dwyane Wade turned back the clock to put up 21 points per game.
Still, the Heat lacked scoring punch at critical moments, with Goran Dragic deferring to D-Wade down the stretch. This offseason, Hassan Whiteside suddenly emerged as a coveted free agent on the market. The 27-year-old is a raw athlete, who led the league in blocks last season, while dropping in 14 points and corralling 11 boards per game.
At the same time, Wade, 34, is looking to cash out on his final contract as a reward for 13 years of loyal service to the organization. The face of the franchise might actually bolt if he feels insulted by a lowball offer.
Critics and basketball purists, of course, would argue that the collapse of Miami basketball would be an excuse for Riley to sell his soul and convince LeBron James to abandon Cleveland and set up a super team in South Beach.