It is the end of 2018, a year in which J.R. Smith threw soup at a coach in March, dribbled out the clock in a tie Game 1 of the NBA Finals in June and openly informed us that his Cleveland Cavaliers were tanking in November. What a year for J-Swish. What a year for the NBA, a league that saw Bryan Colangelo, the general manager of a team with arguably the brightest of futures, get fired because his wife took a flamethrower to the organization on a series of burner Twitter accounts. Never forget.
Let us also not forget this is the year that NBA practices became performance art. When asked to increase his level of intensity, John Wall told Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks, “F— you,” and Jimmy Butler somehow topped that in Minnesota, where he showed up to practice during a trade demand holdout, called out everyone in the organization, and then went on ESPN to talk about it.
The drama is enough to distract us from the incredible reality that the Golden State Warriors are seeking a three-peat and LeBron James just joined the freaking Los Angeles Lakers. We are living in an era of unprecedented NBA popularity for all of these reasons, and yet there’s reason to believe every team can do better in 2019. Here are the true-to-form resolutions for every Eastern Conference team.
Atlanta Hawks: Pick up useful skills
What else is left at this point? You’re among the league’s worst teams in almost every statistical category, and you have no hope of making the playoffs. And it’s not even January yet. The focus now is finishing with the worst record in the NBA in hopes of landing a transformative draft talent, because there’s not one on the roster. Speaking of which, swapping Luka Doncic for Trae Young is looking more and more like a disaster, with Doncic already playing like a star and the Dallas Mavericks (whose first-round pick Atlanta owns in the deal) playing closer to .500 ball.
The rest of the season should be spent figuring out who’s going to be around when the Hawks get good and helping those players develop skills that will benefit them when they get there. There are pieces here, to be sure. Young has shown flashes of why Atlanta thought so highly of him, but his shot selection and carelessness have to improve, along with his defense. John Collins is good. Real good. But he could hone his offensive game. Same with Taurean Prince. And while you’re featuring those guys, you have to figure out if Kevin Huerter and DeAndre’ Bembry are here to stay. It won’t be pretty, but mining gems through the soot is all that’s left.
Boston Celtics: Find your passion
Kyrie Irving certainly had it on Christmas. Marcus Smart always has it. But the Celtics have noticeably lacked the all-out effort that made them so dangerous during their undermanned run to the Eastern Conference finals last season. Whether it was the assumption that everything would just fall into place once Irving and Gordon Hayward returned to the rotation or the natural tendency of players pushed to the wayside to wonder how they fit into the restructuring, they have been off all season, showing few signs of being the team everyone assumed would come out of the East.
Maybe they found it in that team meeting after an ugly loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. They’ve since throttled the Charlotte Hornets, edged the Philadelphia 76ers and stormed back from a 19-point deficit to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies. But we need to see inspired basketball for more than a one- or two-week stretch to truly believe in this team again.
Brooklyn Nets: Be your own destination
The Nets are as frisky as they’ve been since the trade with Boston decimated any hope of a timely rebuild, hovering right on the fringes of the East playoff picture, but it’s unclear if there’s anyone on the roster who impending free agents will look at and say, “Yeah, I want to play with that guy.” Caris LeVert looked to be that guy before suffering a horrific leg injury that thankfully won’t sideline him all season. Here’s hoping he gets back there. Jarrett Allen is another guy who could get there, and blocks like the recent one he had against LeBron James raise his profile.
That’s the idea here. Show us something. Can you make the playoffs? Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie have been revelations, but can they reach another level? Is D’Angelo Russell ever going to be the player we imagined him to be when he was taken second overall in 2015? Can they collectively lift this franchise high enough to intrigue the 2019 free-agent class? They will have enough cap space to sign two max free agents, but the problem is convincing them that Brooklyn is anything but a place where NBA careers go to die. Let’s change that perception.
Charlotte Hornets: Find a significant other
Kemba Walker has been amazing this season, even if his December hasn’t quite been what his November was, and his November wasn’t quite what his October was. He’s willed his way to a leap in Year 8 of his career, which requires a dedication that escapes most stars working alone through two contracts to make small-market teams work. His below-market deal is up again this summer, and he deserves better than a roster whose second-best player constitutes a debate over guys like Nicolas Batum and Jeremy Lamb. Get the man some help, Michael Jordan.
Some of Charlotte’s cumbersome contracts are becoming more tradable, with Lamb’s deal expiring and guys like Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist only a player option away from free agency. They have all their own first-round picks, plus a couple extra second-rounders, and 2017 lottery pick Malik Monk. Can they package some of these assets to land, say, Kevin Love from a Cavaliers team entering a full teardown? That’s not going to transform the Hornets into a contender, but it’ll make them a threat in the East and save Walker from wasting his career on a team perennially bound for nowhere.
Chicago Bulls: Get in shape
On the surface, new coach Jim Boylen will do his darnedest, demanding push-ups from players at the end of six-hour midnight practices after back-to-backs or whatever he’s doing in Chicago.
Deeper, there’s Jabari Parker and Zach LaVine making a combined $40 million. Parker arrived in Chicago touting his defensive inefficiencies, before being demoted and shopped two months into his deal. LaVine is scoring 20-plus points per game, albeit inefficiently, but he’s no better on defense. This is not the foundation for a franchise on the rise. How the Bulls braintrust of John Paxson and Gar Forman thought these were sound investments is the real problem, and they comprise the real fat that Chicago must trim if they ever hope to achieve peak performance.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Let your Love go
We mentioned this in the Hornets bit, but the Cavs have to free Love from the tank that is currently on its way to trample what’s remaining of the prime of his career. Cleveland locked up Love for another four years and $120 million this past summer — a deal that only made sense as a trade chip going forward. The Cavs have already jettisoned Kyle Korver, and they’re working to dump J.R. Smith. By the time they sniff success again, Love’s deal will be done.
Love’s toe injury is expected to keep him out until next month, when he’ll have a few weeks to prove he’s healthy enough to help a team either desperate to make the playoffs (Charlotte?) or trying to get over the top (Denver?). Do the right thing, Koby Altman, and find a trade partner that can tap into Minnesota Kevin Love and get him to the playoffs in a LeBron-less system.
Detroit Pistons: Do something out of your comfort zone
I want to believe in the Pistons — that an offense running through Blake Griffin could work in the East, even with Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson as his running mates — because Dwane Casey is a heck of a coach, and those guys all have talent. But here we are, with Detroit falling prey to the same issue. They own a bottom-10 offense, mostly because they can’t hit the broad side of a barn from 3, where they take a lot of shots and miss more than two-thirds of them. That’s bad enough to be the NBA’s worst shooting team, based on true shooting percentage.
You could teach everyone to shoot, which hasn’t worked in Detroit for some time. You could also find shooting, which is tough, because everybody wants that. Or, you could triple down on this weird roster. Take on more bad contracts. Go all in on woebegone stars. Kick the can on John Wall. Make a deal for Andrew Wiggins. Be the island of misfit toys. Get crazy. We need crazy.
Indiana Pacers: Turn your hobby into a career
Whatever you’re doing, it’s working. Victor Oladipo is a bona fide star, even if his shooting percentages aren’t what they were last season. Domantas Sabonis makes up for that, scoring as efficiently as anyone in the league. Bojan Bogdanovic is another one of the more underrated players in the league. Almost everyone on this team seems to fall into that category. They play hard, and that makes it tough on the many teams using the first half of the season as a warmup.
Yet, it’s hard to take the Pacers more seriously than a plucky bunch of overachievers. The real work starts now. Myles Turner’s development needs to step into overdrive, if the Pacers are to climb into that next tier in the East, or else they should consider dealing him and other assets for a legitimate second option to Oladipo. Their story is a fun one, but we’ve seen what happens in Indiana when a star gets tired of forever lifting good-but-not-great teammates to greater heights.
Miami Heat: Meet new people
The Heat have had the same identity since LeBron left — fundamentally sound and hard-nosed, molded in their coach’s image and making life tough on everyone. Hassan Whiteside is there, too. We need excitement back in Miami. Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo are a nice young core, but collectively they won’t ever be much more than that same identity.
The Heat have a bunch of good players, and they’re locked into paying those players above the salary cap until at least 2020. Their pursuit of Butler made so much sense, because they can’t use the backdrop of South Beach to recruit players in free agency, but they can use it to re-sign players after trading for them, and Butler fit the mold. That ship has sailed, but they should not hesitate to include one or more of that young core in any attempt to upgrade moving forward. The other option is to find homes for Whiteside and some of the other more cumbersome contracts in hopes of clearing cap space earlier than anticipated, because Miami sells itself.
Milwaukee Bucks: Spend money on things that create memories
I know the Bucks are a small-market team, but I don’t want to see them try to cut any salary-cap corners in their attempts to build a contender around Giannis Antetokounmpo. There’s been some talk about the difficulty of keeping superstars in small markets, but the best way to keep those players happy is to construct a winner around them, and you can’t do that on the cheap.
Khris Middleton is going to command a lot of money at season’s end. The trade for George Hill seemed like a cost-cutting move in preparation for paying Middleton, but it also cost them two draft picks in the process. A good chunk of the rotation — Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon (restricted) — will be free agents this summer. The Bucks have to spend just to keep this core together, let alone improve the roster, or else they risk losing Giannis in 2020. They won’t have to spend anything then, because they’ll be irrelevant. Don’t let that happen.
New York Knicks: Get out of debt
Just don’t mess this up. The Knicks are going to have max cap space this summer, and they could get more. Don’t get greedy and go shopping for some mild upgrade that prevents you from chasing the big fish this summer. Durant might be interested, and if you can create enough space for two superstars, he might really be interested. There’s your goal for this season.
To that end, trading Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee is a priority. Hardaway may be averaging 20 points per game, but he’s fairly inefficient getting there, and the Knicks can probably fool some other team to believe he can score the same way on a playoff roster. Lee has seemingly been on half the teams in the league, and there’s always another willing to tap into his on-again, off-again 3-and-D contributions, especially at a respectable $12 million next season.
Orlando Magic: Get organized
The Magic are about as good as we thought they might be under new coach Steve Clifford, which is better than they were and not nearly good enough. They’re outside the East’s ugly playoff picture, and they would be first-round fodder if they were to get in it. Maybe that would be OK. It would certainly be better than the last six years of playoff-less basketball, and the revolving front-office door has already had its share of cracks at the middle of the draft lottery.
The Magic are stuck in a cycle of trying to build some semblance of a competitor and forever adding projects to the job. Pick a direction. They have no point guard and a fun set of bigs — Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba and a rejuvenated Nikola Vucevic — that doesn’t fit together. Figure out which bigs you can play together, get some assets back for the ones who can’t, and ensure those assets make sense in a rotation. And take a flier on Isaiah Thomas.
Philadelphia Sixers: Face your fears
Ben Simmons needs to learn how to shoot. Simple as that. That his 22-footer against the Celtics on Christmas was the longest made field goal of his career is ludicrous. When he has the ball, everybody sinks under screens, and when he doesn’t, nobody worries about helping off of him, which crowds the floor for everyone. It doesn’t help that Butler and Joel Embiid aren’t exactly floor spacers, either, and Embiid has every right to complain about why he’s the one sacrificing.
Simmons would transform into an MVP candidate with a mid-range jumper and a transcendent player with a 3-point shot. Yet, before the season, he explained that he’ll start worrying about extending his range once he’s where he wants to be at the rim and in the post. That could be some time, and the acquisition of Butler sped up Philadelphia’s timeline. At least, like, try a three. Maybe you make one, maybe people start defending you beyond 10 feet and maybe that clears enough space for you to finish around the rim without a wall of defenders waiting for you.
Toronto Raptors: Care less about what others think
Toronto fans constantly feel disrespected, and they are. Their team was left off the NBA’s Christmas Day slate once again, despite leading the league in wins. Raptors GM Masai Ujiri also felt disrespected in the wake of the Kawhi Leonard trade, so much so that he began a long-winded monologue at media day with this: “The narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone. I think that’s old and we should move past that. Believe in this city, believe in yourself. We can stop talking about coming to the city or wanting to come to the city. That’s old talk.”
That narrative is not gone, not until Leonard re-signs in July. Or else it’s very much a narrative that will continue to stick. It does not help that Kyle Lowry is still openly throwing shade at his GM. This is new talk, and we’re going to continue talking about it until July, when Leonard becomes an unrestricted free agent, so I would advise everyone in Toronto to mute every conversation about the future of the franchise. Concentrate on what is happening right now, which is really, really good basketball and a bona fide shot at reaching the Finals. Maybe then you will get your due, Leonard will see the light, Ujiri will be right and Lowry will recognize it.
Washington Wizards: Start being more responsible
The Wizards have blamed everybody but themselves for their failures. That starts with the front office and permeates the locker room. It’s almost enough to make you feel bad for Scott Brooks. I’m not sure if John Wall and Bradley Beal still think that they’re the best backcourt in the league or that LeBron was ducking them in the playoffs. It at least seems that they’re in denial about the fact that they don’t pair well together, and the awkwardness around that fractures a roster further.
Wall’s injury gives Beal a chance to show what he’s capable of on his own again. Should the Wizards rally around him, they have to explore every option of dumping Wall. That is made more difficult by the fact that Wall is sidelined until after his massive contract kicks in, and Ernie Grunfeld isn’t the man to make the deal when his star player returns to form, so asking them to walk the right path here is too much. At the very least, Wall should use his six to eight months off to reflect on why the Wizards want to dump him and why nobody wants to welcome him. He is still only 28 years old, and that’s a perfect time to start reflecting on what you can do better.
The same could be set about us all on New Year’s Eve. Let’s all be better in 2019.
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