Hot Takes We Might Actually Believe: NBA small markets did enough to be just not good enough

The 2022-23 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful offseason we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.

From left, the Timberwolves' Anthony Edwards, Cavaliers' Donovan Mitchell, Hawks' Trae Young and Pelicans' Zion Williamson. (Graphic by Erick Parra Monroy/Yahoo Sports)
From left, the Timberwolves' Anthony Edwards, Cavaliers' Donovan Mitchell, Hawks' Trae Young and Pelicans' Zion Williamson. (Graphic by Erick Parra Monroy/Yahoo Sports)

A handful of the biggest developments from the NBA offseason lifted four small-market operations into contention, and just being in the conversation for the league's championship might be enough for them.

But it isn't enough to win it this season.

The Minnesota Timberwolves paid five first-round draft picks, a pick swap and three members of their playoff rotation for the services of three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. The Cleveland Cavaliers cashed in four first-round picks, two pick swaps and two members of their rotation for the rights to three-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell. The Atlanta Hawks dealt three first-round picks, a pick swap and Danilo Gallinari's expiring contract for one-time All-Star and All-Defensive guard Dejounte Murray. And the New Orleans Pelicans will reintroduce oft-injured 2021 All-Star Zion Williamson to their revamped core.

None of those additions elevates any of them into the league's elite stratosphere. BetMGM gives the Cavaliers the best title chances of the group, and still their 30/1 odds rank 13th out of 30 NBA teams. All four teams are still awaiting the development of their stars and lacking reliable playoff depth around them.

Atlanta Hawks

Atlanta is one of the country's 10 biggest cities, but the Hawks regularly rank in the bottom half of the NBA in attendance and revenue, so the franchise operates as a small-market outfit. The Hawks have not reached an NBA Finals since moving from St. Louis in 1968. Now, two years removed from a surprise run to the Eastern Conference finals, Atlanta made its biggest trade investment in franchise history — into Murray.

Murray is remarkably talented, averaging 21.1 points, 9.2 assists, 8.3 rebounds and a league-high two steals per game for the 34-win San Antonio Spurs last season. He made his first All-Star appearance as an injury replacement in February, three years removed from ACL surgery. He is 6-foot-4 with a 6-10 wingspan, capable of defending multiple positions at a level that earned him 2018 All-Defensive second-team honors.

Murray's skill set makes him an ideal backcourt partner for two-time All-Star point guard Trae Young, who, for all his abilities as a scorer and playmaker, is a liability on defense. How much Murray can mask Young's greatest weakness remains a question. More concerning, though, is the philosophy behind building a small-market operation around two expensive guards. Young is working on a supermax contract, and Murray will be in line for a hefty raise in 2024, so long as he meets the Hawks' expectations (and they can keep him).

The Golden State Warriors are an exception to a rule against constructing champions around two guards. They also play in a market that affords them the ability to pay complementary stars around them — or hire Kevin Durant. Plus, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are simply more dynamic than Young and Murray.

The Hawks have also made annual eight-figure investments into John Collins, Clint Capela and Bogdan Bogdanovic, establishing depth around Young. Collins and Capela are owed almost $50 million combined in 2024-25. Bogdanovic owns an $18 million option next summer, when De'Andre Hunter will command a significant raise in restricted free agency (barring a sizable extension before the start of this season). Atlanta will not enter next season with Young, Murray, Bogdanovic, Hunter, Collins and Capela all on the roster.

The Hawks have paid the luxury tax once in their history — the first year it was installed. They are hovering around the threshold this season and facing mounting penalties in the future if they do not shed talent. They have been willing to trade Collins for as long as they saw his $125 million contract coming, and that speaks to their desire to cut salary before bigger bills come due in July. The window to win with this group is now.

Only, Atlanta isn't good enough.

The addition of Murray makes the Hawks better, but does he transform their defense from one of the five worst units in the league into a middling outfit? Even then, they are projected to finish behind the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat. With the Cavaliers, Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors also lurking, there is no guarantee Atlanta escapes another trip to the play-in tournament.

The Hawks' title chances rely more on the further development of Hunter and Onyeka Okongwu around Young and Murray. Hunter can be a high-end two-way talent on the wing, but he hasn't been able to stay on the floor long enough to demonstrate any consistency. Okongwu has also battled injuries through two seasons. He is modeling his game after All-Star Heat center Bam Adebayo, but there is still a wide gap between them.

Atlanta is straddling the line between maximizing the talent it has on the roster now and developing players to fill their void in the near future. Hunter gets his raise next season, and Okongwu will get his in 2024, when Murray could walk. In the meantime, two of Bogdanovic, Collins and Capela will come off the books, and the Hawks will have to restock the depth chart around a core they hope develops into a true contender.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The same can be said of Cleveland. The Cavaliers have three years to convince Mitchell to re-sign. In that span, they need 21-year-old Evan Mobley to develop into the best player on their championship contender.

That is entirely possible. It's just improbable this season.

The Cavaliers already have three All-Stars on the roster, but Mobley has higher upside than any of them. Mitchell made his third All-Star appearance last season, when Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen made their debuts. Allen was the exhibition's third injury replacement. Only Mitchell received an All-NBA vote — four out of 100 for the third team — and he has never been considered one of the six best guards in the league.

It is hard to win in the NBA when you don't have one of the game's greatest players, even if you might have four of the top 50. Mitchell showed the ability to be an elite playoff scorer, averaging 33.9 points on 48/46/88 shooting splits over two seasons, before reverting to his previous playoff struggles in a first-round loss to the Dallas Mavericks this past April. His defense has been of graver concern and one reason why the Utah Jazz could never translate regular season success to the playoffs. Remember, the Jazz placed three starters in the 2021 All-Star Game, including Gobert.

Garland is not exactly a ball stopper, either. The hope is that both Allen and Mobley can better erase the defensive deficiencies of their backcourt than Gobert could on his own in Utah. That would require them to both take the floor in big moments, but Mobley at center feels like their highest-upside playoff lineup. If that proves true, it would make Allen's $20 million salary through the 2025-26 season awfully untenable.

Cleveland's spending is unbalanced in an era when wings and shooting are the league's most coveted assets. The Cavaliers owe $67 million to a pair of 6-foot-1 guards next season, neither of whom is a top-flight defender. Isaac Okoro, the fifth overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft, is their best defensive wing. Otherwise, they are trusting Caris LeVert or Cedi Osman to corral, say, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

The only real plus shooters on the roster are Garland and Kevin Love, who averaged 22.5 productive minutes off the bench last season. Mitchell will take a lot of 3-pointers, but he has converted them at a league-average rate for his career. Allen and Mobley are non-threats from the perimeter (at least for now, in Mobley's case), and Okoro is not much better. Spacing could become difficult to create in Cleveland.

The Cavaliers were 20th in offensive efficiency last season and worse in the play-in tournament. Mitchell should push them into the top half of the league, but everything hinges on Mobley's development into a Kevin Garnett-like force on both ends. If it doesn't happen this season, financial decisions await. Love and LeVert are unrestricted free agents at season's end. There are only so many players small markets will pay, and the redundancies on Cleveland's roster have already left them with a hole at a position of need.

Mobley may fill in all these blanks at some point, but can he do it in time to keep this core together?

Minnesota Timberwolves

Likewise, the Timberwolves made an all-in trade to win now with a 30-year-old center who has never proven he deserves to be on the floor at the end of a high-stakes playoff game. Only, they are still waiting on 21-year-old Anthony Edwards' ability to develop into the sort of superstar who can carry a champion.

Karl-Anthony Towns is an extraordinary talent, one of the greatest-shooting big men in NBA history. He has also made the playoffs twice in seven seasons and never gotten out of the first round. He is not capable of carrying a top-10 defense, which is why the Timberwolves spent so much to get Gobert, who cost them arguably their two best defenders from last year's middling outfit (Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt).

And don't they want Towns to be their center when it comes time to manufacturing points late in the playoffs? Are they comfortable playing Towns and Gobert together against, say, the Warriors' shooters? They have committed a combined $100 million to Towns and Gobert for the 2025-26 season. This is their plan, without assurance the pairing can coexist, before we ever discover Edwards' ceiling. They have two years until Edwards comes calling for a maximum contract that will eat the remainder of their cap.

Meanwhile, D'Angelo Russell is entering a contract year. It is hard to imagine the Timberwolves bringing him back, considering they benched him with their season on the line in their first-round loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Then, Minnesota will be in the market for a cheaper starting point guard who impacts both ends. The current backup is Jordan McLaughlin, who barely cracked the playoff rotation at age 26 last season.

The Wolves' depth is already thin. Their other veterans are Kyle Anderson, Austin Rivers, Taurean Prince and Bryn Forbes, only one of whom can be trusted to meaningfully contribute in a playoff series. They have a lot invested in 22-year-old Jaden McDaniels' development as a 3-and-D wing alongside Edwards. Their peaks are still several years away, but the trade for Gobert is a bet on them fulfilling their promise sooner.

Do you trust Minnesota's five best players — presumably Russell, Edwards, McDaniels, Towns and Gobert (if not Anderson in one of those spots) — to win a playoff series, let alone four? Maybe one day, not now.

This is the problem with cashing in all your trade chips before the superstar you need most is ready to be one. The Wolves did so for someone who ostensibly plays the same position as their current best player. They spent big in hopes of improving a few spots from last season's seventh seed. They now must maintain that level of competitiveness long enough for Edwards' ascension to make them a serious threat.

Except, it gets harder to retain talent when a small-market team's price tag keeps rising, especially when Minnesota no longer has the draft capital to replenish its reserves and is far from a free-agent destination.

New Orleans Pelicans

If Williamson returns the same player he was when last we saw him in May 2021 — and can maintain that level of dominance throughout the playoffs, after missing all of last season with a foot injury — the Pelicans will be closer than the Hawks, Cavaliers or Timberwolves are to actually winning the championship.

That is a monster bet, but it is one New Orleans made with its deadline trade for CJ McCollum. McCollum turned 31 years old in September. He has never made an All-Star team and escaped the first round of the playoffs once in the past six years, despite playing alongside one of the 75 greatest players ever.

These Pelicans are more talented and balanced on paper than any of McCollum's Portland Trail Blazers rosters. Williamson, who turned 22 in July, has a chance to be a paradigm-shifting force, if he stays healthy. One-time All-Star Brandon Ingram made a playoff star turn in their first-round loss to the Phoenix Suns last season, averaging 27 points (48/41/83 shooting splits), 6.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists over six games. The size, length and athleticism of those two makes it easier to fit the slighter McCollum into all sorts of lineups.

There is also Jonas Valanciunas, who averaged more post-ups than anyone but Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis last season. That is a lot of mouths to feed in New Orleans. At least Herbert Jones is there to willingly accept the dirty work. McCollum is the Pelicans' best facilitator, but he might also be the best on the team at playing off the ball. Nobody but McCollum is a serious 3-point threat in that lineup.

They have too much offensive firepower not to be a top-10 offense during the regular season. Jones is an elite defender already. Williamson and Ingram have the tools to be, although neither has fully committed on that end. Neither McCollum nor Valanciunas are best suited for a modern switching defense. Larry Nance Jr. could help off the bench as a small-ball center, but they will struggle to be a top-10 unit defensively.

That is good enough to make the playoffs. Is it good enough to make a deep run? Probably not.

Ingram has six games of playoff experience. Williamson has none. They will have more in 2023-24, when a 31-year-old Valanciunas will be in the final year of his contract and the Pelicans will spend a combined $103 million on Williamson, Ingram and McCollum. That is when New Orleans will face the threat of attrition.

At least New Orleans still has a boatload of draft picks left to make adjustments on the fly. Building around Williamson will never be easy. Go all-in now, and he might not be ready for the game's grandest stage. Wait, and he may never reach it on the Pelicans, because questions about his health and commitment to a franchise that has lost every superstar it has ever known will follow him for as long as he is in New Orleans.

The move for McCollum only took them halfway from lottery mainstay to playoff challenger, and it is unclear if he will still be around when they are ready to compete for a title. The Warriors, Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns are just six teams who will have a say in whether or not the Pelicans avoid the play-in tournament again, and that does not account for the Timberwolves.

It is hard to win in the NBA. Commend these four small-market operations for trying. Let's just hope they haven't locked themselves into a championship window before their best players are ready to open it.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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