The Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets are the only teams that can justify living in the moment, but even this year's Finals participants probably have contingents of staffers mapping out offseason schemes.
Such is life in the NBA, where next season's plans are often as important as the next night's game.
Everyone but the Heat and Nuggets has been committing brain power solely to the draft, free agency and trade options for weeks now. The clubs bounced from the playoffs even have recent, acute reminders of the issues they need to address this summer. They know what weakness got them beat, and they don't want the same one to hurt them a year from now.
Here, we'll lay out the top action item for each eliminated team. In some cases, that'll mean acquiring a player at a key position. In others, we'll offer a more macro guiding principle.
The offseason is complex, and new CBA restrictions add layers of difficulty. Here, we'll give each eliminated playoff team a simple starting point.
Atlanta Hawks: Trade John Collins for Shooting
Three-point shooting is valuable, and overpaid tweener forwards with downward-trending stats are not. Those facts complicate the Atlanta Hawks' offseason, but they still need to move John Collins in exchange for some floor-spacing. In a perfect world, they'll figure out a way to do so while trimming salary from a cap sheet projected to be about $10 million over the luxury tax line.
Atlanta traded Kevin Huerter last offseason in an effort to cut costs, a move that ran counter to ownership's words on the topic of tax avoidance. Expect the Hawks to operate similarly with Collins' $25.3 million salary this summer.
Financial motivations aside, the Hawks' offensive improvement in 2023-24 will depend on improving their spot-up shooting. Only the Cleveland Cavaliers generated fewer catch-and-shoot three-point attempts.
Trae Young is an expert in the screen-and-roll game. He's an elite lob-thrower with arguably the best floater in the league. But it's much harder for him and a center to execute in the lane when opponents don't have to worry about their three teammates on the perimeter.
Collins shot just 29.2 percent from deep this past season, continuing a four-year slide in long-range accuracy rate. Swapping him out for someone who can reliably knock down threes, ideally on a smaller contract, would help the Hawks keep their roster-building options open and address a key weakness on offense.
Boston Celtics: Another Playmaking Threat
When things go sickeningly sideways for the Boston Celtics, as they did late in the 2022 Finals against the Warriors and periodically throughout the recently completed Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Miami Heat, the symptoms are always the same.
The ball stops on offense, passes swing harmlessly around the perimeter, the paint goes untouched and turnovers ensue.
Consider this a suggestion that Boston should address that specific offensive issue rather than go for the large-scale roster shakeup many seem to want.
The Celtics could find a downhill-attacking wing, a savvy pick-and-roll point guard or a facilitating big to use as an elbow hub. The form they choose doesn't matter; it's all about adding functional playmaking to an offense that needs it.
Boston's reliance on three-point shooting comes up too often during its rough patches. Variance is priced into that approach, as the make-or-miss league cliché is rooted in truth. But the real issue is the quality of threes the Celtics get when they fail to penetrate the lane or make the kinds of incisive passes you see in better offenses. Marcus Smart, Al Horford and Derrick White are serviceable passers. Jayson Tatum shows good vision, but the extension-eligible Jaylen Brown is probably below average as a wing in that regard.
The Celtics need to find a player who can bend the defense out of shape by penetrating or slinging darts into vulnerable areas. Do that, and the championship breakthrough we've been expecting could finally arrive in 2024.
Brooklyn Nets: Retain Cameron Johnson
Restricted free agency is a powerful tool that allows a team to match any outside offer. The Brooklyn Nets should be glad they have it at their disposal when it comes to Cameron Johnson, one of the most prized options on the market.
Johnson doesn't have the star wattage of James Harden, Kyrie Irving or even Khris Middleton, but his plug-and-play profile brings maximum portability. And it doesn't hurt that his next deal will take the 27-year-old right through his peak seasons. Relatively few teams have the cap space to make Johnson a competitive offer—at least four years and $90 million—but most of that subset can justify spending lavishly on a combo forward who can shoot and defend.
Johnson is a career 39.3 percent sniper from deep. Prior to adding volume in a slightly larger role with the Nets this past season, he proved he could contribute to a winner in Phoenix, logging meaningful minutes during their 2021 Finals run and their 64-win season in 2021-22. In every season of Johnson's career, his teams have posted positive point differentials with him on the floor.
That's all to say Johnson will be arguably the most highly sought-after player in the non-superstar category. He fits everywhere, contributes on both ends and makes sense among title-chasers and rebuilders alike. The Nets can't let a robust market scare them. When free agency opens, Brooklyn must be prepared to make Johnson a $100-million man. That's pricey, but the cost of letting such a talented piece get away would be far higher.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Find a Fifth Starter
The Cleveland Cavaliers' first-round dismissal was the result of several shortcomings.
Evan Mobley struggled to make plays as a roll man and couldn't consistently finish over Mitchell Robinson's outstretched Mr. Fantastic arms at the rim. Constant pressure from multiple New York Knicks defenders got the ball out of Donovan Mitchell's hands, kept him off the foul line and contributed to his putrid 28.9 percent knockdown rate from deep. Jarrett Allen got pushed around to an alarming degree on the glass.
The list of reasons for failure is long and varied, but the presence of a threatening, two-way small forward would have mitigated all of them. A shooter who could have commanded more attention than Isaac Okoro would have kept an extra Knicks defender from clogging the lane, and a defender with more size could have spared the relatively diminutive trio of Mitchell, Darius Garland and Caris LeVert from wilting under the superior length of New York's wings.
To suggest an eliminated playoff team could have used a three-and-D small forward, ideally one with some playmaking chops off the bounce, is to state the obvious. Everyone needs more of those. But the Cavs had a gaping hole at the position all year long, to the point that no credible analysis of their roster makeup or postseason chances was complete without that specific weakness heading the list of concerns.
This can't happen again. The other four starters—Garland, Mitchell, Mobley and Allen—are too good now and have too much potential to let the most glaring lineup void in the league torpedo another season. Whether via trade, bargain signing or improbable internal development, Cleveland has to find a small forward to complete an otherwise contention-worthy first unit.
Golden State Warriors: Do Right by Stephen Curry
Shooting might only be Stephen Curry's second-greatest attribute. Judging by the way he's handled the Golden State Warriors' roster-building plans of the last few years, we can only conclude that patience is No. 1.
What other late-prime superstar has ever shown Curry's restraint while watching his team hold onto multiple lottery picks and embrace a "two timeline" plan, enduring it all without so much as a peep? Plenty of his peers advocate publicly for their teams to avoid long-term thinking, and a few might even use the threat of retirement as a leverage play to force win-now moves.
But not Curry.
Any one of the many crossroads moments the Warriors face this summer could have been the "top priority" pick, but one guiding principle hangs over all of them. Golden State has to do right by Steph. It owes it to him—probably literally, considering his singular impact on the franchise's skyrocketing valuation over the last decade—but certainly figuratively.
So when Golden State decides what it's willing to pay Draymond Green if he declines his player option, and when it comes time to consider trading Jordan Poole, the only question worth asking is: What would be best for Curry? And yes, that includes ownership potentially accepting the financial pain of staying miles above the tax line and even pretending the brutal second-apron penalties don't exist.
The Warriors have to do whatever it takes to make sure next season is all about giving Curry the best possible chance to win.
Los Angeles Clippers: Trade for a Point Guard
Russell Westbrook was better than anyone (Paul George excluded) could have expected for the Los Angeles Clippers down the stretch of 2022-23. But because L.A. signed Westbrook to a one-year, minimum deal, it can only pay him 20 percent more than that next season. Someone else will offer more, which means Westbrook will only be back if he accepts a discount. That means the Clips will very likely be in the market for a point guard.
Between Norman Powell, Marcus Morris, Robert Covington, Nicolas Batum, Terance Mann and Ivica Zubac, Los Angeles has six players set to earn between $10-18 million next season. Morris, Covington and Batum are all on expiring deals, making them even more palatable trade fodder for teams looking to clean up their books. Some combination of those players packaged with the Clips' No. 30 pick in the 2023 draft could bring back a low-end starter at the 1, which would be a significant upgrade on what the team settled for before Westbrook arrived.
Chris Paul should be gettable, but he'd give the aging and injury-prone Clippers yet another fragile veteran. Doubling down on health risks might be a bad bet in light of the way injuries to Leonard and George have prevented the team from reaching its ceiling for four straight seasons. Then again, if it's upside the Clippers seek, Paul would provide more of that than the likes of Terry Rozier and Spencer Dinwiddie, two other potential trade targets.
However the Clippers manage it, they must find a lead guard to run the offense alongside and in relief of Leonard and George. And if Westbrook bolts, the need will only be more glaring.
Los Angeles Lakers: Resist Temptation
If LeBron James' retirement talk was a leverage play to encourage win-now moves from the Los Angeles Lakers, the team should remember what actually produced wins this past season. It wasn't the presence of a purported third star, but the absence of one.
The Lakers took off after they dealt away Russell Westbrook in a series of moves that added depth, defense and shooting to the roster. Their net rating prior to the All-Star break ranked 24th. Afterward, it was sixth.
B/R's Eric Pincus reported James was "a significant proponent" of bringing Westbrook aboard in the first place. The Lakers should keep the low success rate of James' roster-building preferences in mind if he's angling for, say, Kyrie Irving this summer. That'll be difficult in the face of James' massive influence and willingness to publicly call out management, but L.A. has to hold strong.
Even if the Lakers completely gut the roster and renounce rights to their own free agents, they can't clear enough room to make a competitive offer for Irving. His maximum starting salary is $46.9 million, and Los Angeles can only get to about $36 million if it allows Austin Reaves, D'Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura and all of its free agents and non-guaranteed salaries to walk.
That's just not worth it. The Westbrook experiment proved as much.
Maybe there's a middle ground where the Lakers bring back their most important role players, headlined by Reaves, and save enough elsewhere to preserve their full midlevel exception for an outside acquisition. James may not like it, but it'd make more sense for the Lakers to bring back the exact same roster that reached the Conference finals than it would to replace a half-dozen useful players with Irving or some other costly third star.
Memphis Grizzlies: Dillon Brooks' Replacement
Ja Morant has now been suspended twice by his team for brandishing a gun on social media, and the league will very likely issue a punishment that'll cost him a chunk of the 2023-24 regular season. If we're thinking broadly, the Memphis Grizzlies' top offseason priority might be figuring out how to survive in the short and long-term without their All-Star guard.
Without knowing Morant's suspension status, that's a tricky issue to handle.
Fortunately, the Grizz have a much simpler task to tackle: They need to find a replacement for Dillon Brooks, who will not be back "under any circumstances," per The Athletic's Shams Charania.
Brooks' bluster and bear-poking will not be missed, but his perimeter defense and intensity will. The Grizzlies can shop for replacements at the 3 using their midlevel exception or on the trade market, with the latter route offering higher-end options. If Memphis wants to bowl the Toronto Raptors over with an offer for OG Anunoby that features multiple future first-round picks, it absolutely can.
Ziaire Williams has struggled to stay healthy after a promising rookie season, and no one else on the current roster profiles as a clear starting-caliber player at small forward. So however it happens, the Grizzlies will need to bring in outside help at Brooks' former position.
Milwaukee Bucks: Keep the Band Together at a Discount
Khris Middleton has a $40.4 million player option he can decline in search of a new deal (or pick up prior to extension negotiations), and Brook Lopez will be a free agent in search of a deserved raise on the $13.9 million he made last season. The Milwaukee Bucks need to keep both if they plan to contend again next season.
Oh, and they probably need to do so at a lower combined annual salary than they paid for them in 2022-23.
Using Middleton and Lopez's cap holds as guides ($46.9 and $20.9 million, respectively), the Bucks are projected to be $54.5 million over the cap next year with only eight roster spots filled. More importantly, they're already projected to be well above the second tax apron, which will trigger painful penalties under the new collective bargaining agreement.
Bringing Middleton back on a discount and somehow convincing Lopez to re-up for last year's rates won't guarantee Milwaukee can get below the second apron, especially with so many other spots to fill. But every dollar saved will count.
Lastly, allowing two key starters to leave over money could signal to Giannis Antetokounmpo a lack of commitment to contention. With his free agency on the horizon as soon as the summer of 2025, that's a message Milwaukee should avoid sending.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Lock Down the Wings
Anthony Edwards is eligible to sign a maximum rookie-scale extension that could be worth up to $240 million over five years if he makes an All-NBA team next season. Even with Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert already making max money, the Minnesota Timberwolves must offer Edwards the full boat at their first opportunity.
We're in the midst of a juiced offensive era, but last year Edwards became just the fourth player aged 21 or under to average over 24.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists on at least 56.0 percent true shooting. The others are LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Luka Dončić.
He's the type of franchise-altering talent you pay as much as possible without blinking.
Second order of business: extending Jaden McDaniels on his own new deal, which could exceed $100 million over four years.
McDaniels is among the best wing defenders in the league. Long, mobile, highly aggressive and toting a top-10 percent block rate (among forwards) across each of the last three years, the 22-year-old also made a leap as a shooter last year. Defense as disruptive as McDaniels' would play anywhere. Paired with the 39.8 percent hit rate from deep he managed in 2022-23, the overall package becomes immensely valuable.
The Wolves can sort out their gross expenditures at center another time. For now, they need to ensure their wings of the future are locked down at market rates.
New York Knicks: Find a Knockdown Shooter
The New York Knicks shot a playoff-low 29.6 percent from deep and ranked 20th in accuracy from long distance during the season. So if something other than "more shooting" sits atop your personal list of offseason priorities for the Knicks, you've overthought it.
New York needs someone with the off-ball gravity to pull defenders out of the lane, open operating space for Jalen Brunson and unclutter the paint so Mitchell Robinson can catch lobs and haul in offensive rebounds.
Options abound, and the Knicks should have their full midlevel exception to offer. Brooklyn Nets free agent Seth Curry and his career 40.5 percent mark from three, which ranks fifth among players with at least 1,500 attempts, would be a logical cross-borough signing.
Gary Trent Jr. wouldn't offer the same historic level of accuracy as Curry, but he'd make up for that in volume. GTJ, who can hit free agency by declining a player option with the Toronto Raptors, has gotten up at least 10.5 three-point attempts per 100 possessions in each of the last three years. If his price exceeds New York's means, Malik Beasley could be a cheaper alternative.
Donte DiVincenzo is more of a defender and low-usage spot-up threat. But he shot 39.7 percent from distance with the Warriors, and New York has reason to believe there's no such thing as rostering too many Villanova products.
Philadelphia 76ers: Thread the Needle on James Harden
James Harden turned in a pair of brilliant playoff performances in the conference semifinals against the Boston Celtics before fizzling late in the series, closing with a 3-of-11 shooting night and a minus-30 plus/minus in Game 7.
While clearly valuable, the former MVP simply isn't someone the Philadelphia 76ers can hand a max contract. According to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, they don't want to do that ahead of Harden's age-34 season.
The Sixers don't have the resources to add another star if Harden declines his $35.6 million player option and leaves in free agency. But with the Houston Rockets looming as either a destination or a highly effective leverage play, Philadelphia may have no choice but to spend more than it should.
A starting salary at Harden's max of $46.9 million would likely push the Sixers above the second tax apron, even if they fill out the rest of the roster as cheaply as possible. If Harden gets away for nothing and the Sixers renounce rights on Georges Niang, Shake Milton, Jalen McDaniels, Paul Reed and Dewayne Dedmon—they could have enough room to use their full midlevel exception.
In an ideal world, the Sixers would keep Harden at a price well below the max, duck the second apron, use some of those "savings" to bring back a couple of their own free agents and then hope they can squeeze in another rotation-worthy piece for the taxpayer's midlevel.
If Philly's real-world offseason comes anywhere close to that ideal, it'll be a massive win.
Phoenix Suns: Acquire Depth
It turns out Devin Booker and Kevin Durant aren't quite good enough to make a title run on their own. The Phoenix Suns learned that in the 2023 playoffs as their lack of depth exacerbated a spate of injuries and ultimately left them without enough serviceable support pieces for their two superstars.
Durant averaged 42.4 postseason minutes per game, with Booker narrowly behind at 41.7. As those two fatigued in the second round against the Denver Nuggets, it was clear the Suns were cooked.
Phoenix could address its thin bench by flipping Deandre Ayton for two or three usable pieces, ending a saga that has seemed destined for dissolution since 2021. Failing that, Chris Paul might fetch a starter and a reserve, depending on how desperate a contender might be for an injury-plagued 38-year-old.
Reinforcements will have to arrive via trade because the Suns project to be $37 million into the tax with just Durant, Booker, Ayton, Paul, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne and Ish Wainwright on the books for next year. Free agents Torrey Craig, TJ Warren, Damion Lee, Bismack Biyombo, Terrence Ross and Jock Landale could all return on new deals, but the postseason just proved that no combination of that player group was good enough to help KD and Booker get the job done.
Sacramento Kings: Defensive Upgrades
Information is power, and a top executive won't always come right out and give away his offseason plans. But when the areas for improvement are as obvious as they are with the Sacramento Kings, there's no reason for GM Monte McNair to hide the ball.
He laid out his team's plans in exit interviews: "Our net rating was in the two to three range; that's going to have to improve. And so whether that comes from if we can somehow add to the No. 1 offense and get that to plus-five or plus-six, great, I think more likely that comes from the defensive end, just given where we were respectively on each end of the court."
Domantas Sabonis will always be a limiting factor on D. As long as he's in the middle, opponents will have high success rates around the rim and in space against him as a pick-and-roll or switch defender. To his credit, Sabonis was a huge reason the Kings topped the league in offense. He was also a driving factor in their No. 25 finish on D, by far the worst of any playoff team.
He's not losing minutes next year, and neither is De'Aaron Fox, which means the Kings must seek help at the wing and forward spots.
Harrison Barnes will hit the unrestricted market, and the Kings could let him walk while renouncing rights to the rest of their free agents to clear just over $20 million in cap space. If that's enough to get them a defensive wing or combo forward, they'll have to think hard about letting a locker room leader and valuable veteran presence go.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Salary info via Spotrac.
Grant Hughes covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@gt_hughes), and subscribe to the Hardwood Knocks podcast, where he appears with Bleacher Report's Dan Favale.