Fresh off part one of our review of the fallen first round teams, here is part two:
1. Atlanta Hawks: Hard to believe but the Hawks have now made the playoffs ten years in a row. Over that time, Atlanta has done a great job of shifting from a Joe Johnson/Josh Smith team to a Al Horford/Paul Millsap team without any heavy rebuilding/tanking. Alas, these impressive pivots look less promising going forward. Atlanta was 43-39, which doesn’t look terrible but the team SRS of -1.23 was the worst since 2007-08.
Another bad indicator is team balance. The Hawks were 27th in the NBA in offense and 4th in defense. Millsap is the team’s best player and can (and certainly will) opt out of his deal for a last big payday. Historically, the Hawks haven’t been willing to pay their stars for production in their 30s because of the risk of paying for decline years. This has usually turned out pretty well (see Smith, Josh). Atlanta will probably also let Millsap go unless the price to keep him is too good. That leaves one promising young player (Dennis Schroder) and large amount of payroll in Kent Bazemore (who struggled most of the year) and Dwight Howard (who will be 32).
Howard has been a lightning rod of criticism because he tends to complain and has little offensive game but he is still a very good defensive player (and large part of the Hawks solid defense). Alas, a Schroeder-Bazemore-Howard core is not that good. The Hawks will have to find another shrewd bargain like they did when they got Millsap. More likely, Atlanta is looking at its first lottery pick since the George W. Bush Administration.
2. Chicago Bulls: The Bulls correctly found that the old core built around Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, and Joakim Noah was finished. They moved on but ended up with yet another blah .500 team anyway. Somehow, the Bulls didn’t expect to have scoring problems with non-shooting guards Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. The Bulls were 20th offensively and 28th in three-pointers made. There were also plenty of drama with Rondo and Nikola Mirotic going from playing heavy minutes to full DNPs and back to the rotation.
Where do the Bulls go from here? Jimmy Butler and Robin Lopez are locked into team-friendly contract for two more seasons. The Bulls may as well try to contend on the fly as long as Butler is still in town. The hope is that Bobby Portis continues to develop into a cheap starter and that they can find some parts that fit better.
In addition, the Bulls have three players to really watch this summer: (a) Rondo, (b) Wade, and (c) Mirotic.
Rondo has one more year on his contract and is not that expensive ($14 million). The Bulls would do better to have a point guard who would help them space the offense better. Still, if there is no better option, they could live with Rondo because he can be effective when he is fully engaged. The plan should be to try for an value upgrade if someone better falls in their lap. If not, try Rondo one more time and hope that one of his backups develops.
Wade has a player option for about $25 million and there is no way he can get anywhere close to that if he opts out. Some have noted that Wade has already made a ton of money and he should be willing to sacrifice some of that money to be a role player on a contender (maybe with LeBron in Cleveland?). This type of value judgment is unfair to Wade. He gave up salary for years to make Miami a better team. No harm in being a little selfish now. Nor is it necessarily that much more satisfying to be a sixth man on a good team as opposed to a major player on a mediocre team. Why should Wade give up $10-15 million because some sportswriters think it would be cool for him to get another ring? If that is what Wade truly wants, so be it but either decision is perfectly rational.
Either way, the Bulls are probably hoping that Wade leaves. Wade had his moments but the overall numbers at or near career lows in VORP, BPM, WS, and PER. Wade may still be useful but the risk of a collapse is quite real.
Finally, Mirotic has not progressed much since his rookie year but is still a solid payer. The qualifying offer to keep him ($7.5 million) is too cheap to let him go for nothing, unless it frees up cap room to get the Bulls a big free agent.
And if the Bulls do want to make a run next season, they will have to nab a nice free agent. The current payroll is about $80 million, so perhaps dumping Mirotic or Rondo could get them in a position to look at some of the stars on the market. The Bulls most likely outcome is another .500 team but they do have a puncher’s chance of shifting the roster toward 45-50 wins.
3. Milwaukee Bucks: The good news is Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like as good a player as anyone in the league. Jason Kidd has also been very creative in getting value out of a middling roster. The bad news is that the rest of the roster is really middling. Rookie Malcolm Brogdon was a nice surprise at times but his overall numbers were not actually great (14.9 PER, -0.5 BPM) and he is already 24.
The Bucks’ challenge will be to improve defensively (19th overall). Giannis was quite good but none of the regular guards had a positive DPBM (Matthew Dellavedova was particularly weak and Khris Middleton has not been great for two years now). With this clear weak spot, the Bucks should target some better and cheap defensive talent in that area (perhaps Rondo or Thabo Sefolosha?). If that can be done, the Bucks could be mid-seed in the East.
4. Los Angeles Clippers: There are a ton of observations one can make about the Clippers that make implicit good and bad assessments of the Clipps. First the bad:
-The Clippers have declined in wins each of the last four seasons.
-The Clippers have not gotten to the second round of the playoffs since 2014-15.
-Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are both free agents.
-Paul missed 20 games this year and Griffin has missed 82 games the last three seasons.
On the other hand, maybe that is all a little pessimistic. There are counters to most of these points:
-The Clippers have had a .600+ winning percentage the last six years. A minor decline in wins aren’t that big a deal.
-The Clipps have had some really unfortunately timed injuries the last two years in the playoffs. With a healthy Paul and Griffin, they probably would’ve beaten Portland last season and Utah this year.
-The Clipps have the money to re-sign both Paul and Griffin.
-Paul’s injury was flukey last season (broken hand) and he should be really good even in his decline phase. As for Griffin, his injuries have been more persistent but he is only 28 and worthy of an investment for three years.
So, things aren’t terrible. The problem is that, in 2013, the Clipps were set up to be the dominant team in the NBA and, somehow, the Warriors leapfrogged them. The Clippers can continue being a 50+ win team but there seems to be no way to get back up to the level of the Spurs or Warriors. In reality, the Clippers biggest problem is their terrible bench. Quasi-big names like Austin Rivers, J.J. Redick, Raymon Felton, Paul Pierce, and Jamal Crawford have been average to below average. Management will have to avoid the big names and try to find more value plays (like Luc Mbah a Moute and Mareese Speights were).
In all, a title for this team seems unlikely but there is no shame in being the third or fourth best team in the West indefinitely. The Clippers should embrace that lot. It is possible that they could bust through with a lucky break (they certainly are due one).
5. Memphis Grizzlies: You have to credit the Grizz’s resilience. They continue to be a top notch defensive team and continue to make the playoffs year-after-year. The success is concentrated in Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, two very good players without much support. The offense struggled (19th) as there is precious little in prospects on the roster and they already have the sixth highest payroll in the NBA, a large chunk of which is invested in Chandler Parsons’ bad knees. On top of that Gasol will already be 33(!) next year.
Unless something unforeseen happens (a great draft pick or a Parsons resurgence), the Grizz look ready to finally fall back to the lottery. Memphis has done a great job of shifting players and coaches and still staying solid but the end is near.