NBA Buzz: Bulls could be in the middle of an Eastern Conference shake-up originally appeared on nbcsportschicago.com
With the Eastern Conference semifinal series looking like toss ups after the opening games, there's a lot more at stake for the Bucks, Raptors, 76ers and Celtics than just a spot in the conference finals.
All four teams, along with the No. 5 seed in the East, the Indiana Pacers, have a number of key players headed to free agency in July, and those decisions could significantly alter the balance of power in the conference.
Let's start with the top seeded Bucks, who will have three starters (Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon) hitting the open market (Brogdon is restricted), along with former Bulls' forward Niko Mirotic and potentially backup point guard George Hill, who has a non-guaranteed $18 million dollar contract for next season. Middleton will have a number of teams bidding for his services after an All-Star season, while Lopez also should have plenty of suitors with his new-found 3-point marksmanship. And, don't be surprised if some team makes an aggressive contract offer to Brogdon to force the Bucks into a tough decision on whether to drive up their luxury tax bill to keep the former Rookie of the Year.
Toronto has been very careful in monitoring Kawhi Leonard's workload this season, hoping to convince the free agent-to-be that the best choice for his future is north of the U.S.-Canada border. Most NBA analysts have the Clippers as the top team on Leonard's wish list, but that might change if the Raptors are able to get to the NBA Finals. Leonard has said next to nothing about his upcoming free agency, so he's the ultimate wild card when the clock strikes midnight on June 30th. Danny Green and Jeremy Lin are also unrestricted free agents, while Marc Gasol has a $25.6 million dollar player option he's likely to exercise for next season.
Philadelphia will have starters Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and J.J. Redick heading into free agency along with reserves T.J. McConnell and Boban Marjanovic. No one knows what Butler will do, with the assumption that 76ers general manager Elton Brand will prioritize signing the younger Harris this summer, even though Butler is the better overall player.
The former Bulls' All-Star could be a target for both New York and both Los Angeles teams, while the sharp-shooting Redick could be priced out of Philadelphia if Butler and Harris return. Remember, the Bulls signed Redick to a free agent offer sheet years ago, so he could be on John Paxson and Gar Forman's wish list, depending on what they do in the draft.
Celtics' stars Kyrie Irving and Al Horford both hold player options for next season. Irving will definitely shop his services, with both the Knicks and Nets rumored to be on his list of possible destinations. Horford is due $30 million dollars for next season, but could opt out to negotiate a long-term deal with the Celtics. Would Horford consider leaving Boston if Irving bolts? And, keep an eye on restricted free agent Terry Rozier, another player the Bulls are high on. Boston has two other upcoming free agents in veterans Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes.
Indiana could have a dramatically different look next season with starters Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Darren Collison and Wesley Matthews all unrestricted free agents, along with top reserves Tyreke Evans and Cory Joseph. The Pacers have a ton of cap space, but Indianapolis has never been a big draw for free agents and no one is sure when star guard Victor Oladipo will be ready to play next season after suffering a serious leg injury in January.
So, with the top teams in the East facing significant losses this summer, which teams are poised to make a jump in the standings? We've all heard the rumors of Irving and Kevin Durant possibly joining forces with the Knicks. And what if that long-suffering franchise also cashes in on a 14 percent chance for the No. 1 overall draft pick and brings Zion Williamson to Manhattan as well? All of a sudden, they go from the worst team in the NBA to a possible top 5 seed.
Brooklyn is also hoping to use its massive cap space to attract an elite free agent after making a surprising run to the playoffs this past season, and they'll be trying to recruit the Durant-Irving combo as well. But the Nets will have to devote some of their spending power to re-signing All-Star guard D'Angelo Russell, who is a restricted free agent.
Orlando will continue to develop its young frontcourt of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba, but could lose All-Star center Nikola Vucevic in free agency. The Magic will be in the market for an upgrade at point guard after getting by this season with Bulls' cast-offs D.J. Augustin, Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams.
Detroit sputtered to the No. 8 seed this past season, but they're locked in to a middling roster featuring bloated salaries for Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, while Washington is starting over after trading Otto Porter Jr. to the Bulls and likely having to play next season without star guard John Wall, who's rehabbing from Achilles tendon surgery.
Charlotte could lose All-Star guard Kemba Walker in free agency, which would send that franchise into rebuild mode. Meanwhile, the arrow is pointing up in Atlanta, where the Hawks could add two top 10 draft picks to their young nucleus of Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter and Taurean Prince.
Where does all of this leave the Bulls?
Well, a lot depends on what happens in the draft lottery on May 14th. If the Bulls are able to land Williamson or dynamic point guard Ja Morant, their prospects for a double digit win bump look a lot brighter. Getting one of the top two players in the draft will also shorten their shopping list with the approximately $20 million dollars of cap space available. Maybe a player like Redick or Ricky Rubio would give the Bulls serious consideration with a potential star like Williamson on board.
If the Bulls draft Morant, they could possibly use their cap space for frontcourt depth and another 3-point shooter to strengthen their bench unit.
As always, staying healthy will be the key to the Bulls contending for a playoff spot next season. October injuries to Lauri Markkanen, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis and Kris Dunn pretty much ended their chances for an improved finish in 2018-19, and we really won't know what one of the NBA's youngest teams is capable of until all the players are healthy and productive.
Still, with the potential exodus of star power from the East's best teams, the conference standings could be in for quite a shake-up next season.
AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
Over in the Western Conference, the Clippers are poised to make a significant roster upgrade after surprising most NBA analysts by grabbing the final playoff spot, even after trading their best player, Tobias Harris, to Philadelphia.
The Clippers have the potential to offer two maximum contracts to the elite free agent class, and they obviously have a lot to sell with an overachieving young team, a popular coach in Doc Rivers, a passionate owner in Steve Ballmer and one of the best executives in league history in Jerry West.
As I mentioned earlier, the Clippers are considered the favorite to sign Kawhi Leonard if he leaves Toronto, and they could also make a run at Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson and Kemba Walker. Rivers did an excellent job nurturing young guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet and Jerome Robinson, while getting the most out of veterans Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley. The Clippers won't be able to keep everyone if they go all-in on free agency, but their future looks brighter than the cross-town Lakers.
The Phoenix Suns were the first team this offseason to fill their head coaching vacancy, reportedly hiring Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach Monty Williams to a five-year deal.
Williams interviewed twice with the Lakers but instead opted for a chance to coach rising star Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, last year's No. 1 overall pick. That could open the door for the Lakers to hire LeBron James' head coach in Cleveland, Ty Lue.
The Lakers have also interviewed Jason Kidd and Chicago native Juwan Howard, but at the moment it looks likke it's Lue's job to lose. Along with the Lakers, the Cavaliers and Grizzlies both have head coach openings.
The upcoming NBA draft lottery is probably the most anticipated since 2003 when James was preparing to enter the league straight out of high school. Williamson has all the qualities teams are looking for in a franchise player, and whichever team is lucky enough to get him will suddenly see a huge jump in ticket sales, marketing dollars and most likely, wins next season.
The other reason this year's lottery takes on so much importance is the huge drop-off after the top two players, Williamson and Murray St. point guard Ja Morant. Teams picking 3rd, 4th and 5th this year will wind up with players nowhere near the caliber of the 2018 selections in those spots, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young. Matter of fact, one NBA scout told Bleacher Report's Sean Highkin that the players chosen after Williamson and Morant would have had a tough time cracking last year's top 14 lottery picks.
The lack of elite players in this year's draft could lead to some unexpected picks in the top 10 with teams potentially considering high upside choices like Oregon big man Bol Bol, USC wing Kevin Porter Jr. and Guinean-born, French forward Sekou Doumboya over the more well known collegians like Cam Reddish, Jarrett Culver, De'Andre Hunter, Romeo Langford and Rui Hachimura.