The NBA offseason is a time to let your optimism-fueled imaginations run wild.
Still, realism needs to re-enter the discussion at some point, and with all of the major roster movement seemingly complete, now is as good of a time as any.
With the 2021-22 campaign quietly approaching, there are already ominous clouds looming over several clubs. Some failed to correct glaring problems this summer. Others were active this summer but may have collected the wrong pieces and, due to the sheer volume of activity, perhaps created expectations they aren't built to meet.
For these reasons and others, the following five squads seem the likeliest to push the self-destruct button between now and the trade deadline.
If the Chicago Bulls can't make their roster work, it won't be for a lack of trying.
Dating back to last season's deadline, they added a pair of past All-Stars (Nikola Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan) and perhaps a future one (Lonzo Ball). All of this was seemingly done to appease their current All-Star, Zach LaVine, and convince him to put pen to paper on a new contract before his existing one expires next summer.
On paper, the Bulls should be better than last season, but that's not saying much. That was their fourth consecutive losing campaign, and they fell two games shy of a play-in tournament invite. While securing one this season would be progress, that's not good enough given their level of investment in this core.
Speaking of which, Chicago's ceiling could be fundamentally capped by the defensive issues created by putting LaVine, Vucevic and DeRozan on the same roster. Those three could work offensive magic together, but this projects more as a good attack than a great one. That's not enough to support what could be a bottom-third defense, if not worse.
If LaVine doesn't sign an extension this offseason, the front office could feel awfully antsy come February if the Bulls can't gain traction in what could be the most competitive Eastern Conference playoff race in years. And if they get the sense LaVine might leave, they surely won't be keen on paying the 30-year-old Vucevic $46 million for the next two seasons or $81.9 million over the next three to the 32-year-old DeRozan.
There's a perfect world in which Chicago looks wise for the roster reshuffling while competing for a top-six seed in the East. But there are more scenarios in which the best path forward for the franchise involves fire-selling the vets and retooling around Ball and Patrick Williams for the long term.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have booked a single playoff trip since 2004. And that one was led by Jimmy Butler, who took a blowtorch to the team shortly thereafter.
Patience, in other words, should be running wafer-thin at this point. While the Wolves might excuse last season as the result of unfortunate circumstances—no issue greater than the fact franchise cornerstones Karl-Anthony Towns, D'Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards played just 24 games together—they have no time for excuses this year.
Towns is 25 years old and can enter free agency in 2024. Russell is also 25 and will get to free agency a year sooner. It's now or never to make a move up the standings, and between the depth of the Western Conference and some unresolved issues with this roster, it's fair to wonder if it just won't happen for the Wolves.
Last season, Minnesota fielded the seventh-worst defense in NBA history. Where are the hopes for improvement? Bringing in Patrick Beverley theoretically helps, but given that the team gave up Ricky Rubio, that might be a lateral move. Fellow newcomer Taurean Prince has had a negative defensive box plus/minus each of the past four seasons.
The Wolves are the "most active" team in trade talks for Ben Simmons, per The Athletic's Jon Krawczynski, and Simmons is exactly the kind of versatile stopper they need. But the same report states the Wolves are hoping to get Simmons without losing Towns, Edwards or Russell, which seems impossible unless the Philadelphia 76ers want to trade Simmons for (at best) a few dimes on the dollar.
Minnesota should be decent on offense, but it needs to be elite at that end to win with this defense. Maybe that's possible, but the Wolves don't have a primary playmaker on the roster and aren't swimming with shot-creators, so color me skeptical.
If it's nearing midseason and Minnesota is again trapped in the West's back third, it might be time to reset around Edwards by trading Towns, Russell, Prince and Beverley for all of the assets it can get.
Portland Trail Blazers
For the fourth time in five seasons, the Portland Trail Blazers finished their year with a first-round exit. Does anyone other than general manager Neil Olshey believe the coaching change from Terry Stotts to Chauncey Billups can cure what ails this club?
Count franchise face Damian Lillard among the skeptical.
"I don't disagree that maybe Chauncey can really change our team and make us a better team and get us going in that direction," Lillard said in July, per B/R's Sean Highkin. "But I think if you look at our team as it is going into next season, I don't see how you can say: 'This is a championship team. We just need a new coach.'"
Either Olshey ignored those words or grossly misinterpreted their meaning. It was a clear call to action from Lillard, and Olshey responded by signing Cody Zeller, Tony Snell and Ben McLemore and trading for Larry Nance Jr. If not for the Nance deal, Portland's offseason grade would've been the sad trombone sound.
Nance can help, but he's not fixing this defense, although to his credit, no single player could. This unit was the third-worst in NBA history, and it will struggle to be even competent as long as Lillard and CJ McCollum man the backcourt together.
The Blazers could be good—they have been for the majority of Lillard's tenure—but that's a moot point when Lillard has made it clear that isn't good enough. He has left the door open to asking out, and if Portland's lack of a championship path forces him that direction, the Blazers could quickly spiral into an everything-must-go liquidation.
Without Lillard, Portland could decide it no longer needs the services of—clears throat—McCollum, Nance, Jusuf Nurkic, Robert Covington and $90 million man Norman Powell. The closest the Blazers get to contending next season might be supplying actual contenders with win-now upgrades at the deadline.
Publicly, the Toronto Raptors claim they're in it for the long haul. They don't see a need for drastic change despite Kyle Lowry's departure in free agency.
"We are going to create our own direction," Raptors president Masai Ujiri told reporters. "I'm saying it again: We are going to continue to develop these players and we're going to find a way to win a championship here based on our development of our players."
That's the right aim for a long-term rebuilder. It's a little harder to follow for a franchise anchored by a pair of 27-year-olds: Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, who are set to collect a combined $52.7 million this season and even more over the next two (if VanVleet picks up his $22.8 million player option for 2023-24).
Siakam and VanVleet are win-right-now players. Three seasons back, each played a pivotal role in bringing the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy north of the border. As long as they're on the Raptors' roster, this team won't bottom out—not without last season's late tanking shenanigans, at least.
Does Toronto have enough blue-chip young talent on the roster to eventually elevate this club to contention? That's hard to see. Can those young players develop fast enough to maximize the remainder of Siakam's and VanVleet's primes? That's asking an awful lot.
With a quick change of heart, Toronto could pivot into a long-term rebuild pretty effortlessly. The Raptors already have a Siakam replacement on the roster with No. 4 pick Scottie Barnes—if not two with 2020's 20th pick, Precious Achiuwa—and Malachi Flynn might be capable of stepping into VanVleet's role sooner than later. OG Anunoby is young enough to build with but also established enough to flip for a substantial return.
Tack on scoring guard Goran Dragic and shot-blocking, shot-making big man Chris Boucher, both of whom are on expiring contracts, and the Raptors have no shortage of trade chips. Rather than hovering near the East's midsection and hoping for some developmental breaks down the road, Toronto could easily decide its best for the franchise's future to cash in its proven contributors for a mountain of assets.
Stop me if you've heard this once—or a million times: Bradley Beal has a direct path to 2022 free agency. As long as that's the case (and it's in his best financial interest to not sign anything before next summer), the future of the Washington Wizards will be up in the air.
To their credit, they got busy this offseason reassembling the puzzle around him. He has a new backcourt mate (Spencer Dinwiddie), a new supporting cast (Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and Corey Kispert) and a new head coach (Wes Unseld Jr.).
What's missing from that mix? A top-shelf co-star. Dinwiddie produced like a near-star once, but even then it was 64 games from a season in which he posted a 41.5/30.8/77.8 shooting slash and a solid-but-nowhere-near-spectacular 17.8 player efficiency rating. He also lost all but three games of last season to a partially torn ACL in his right knee, so his challenge to replicate—let alone improve—that production is steep.
The Wizards should have a more complete club this time around, but their ceiling might fall short of a second-round appearance. Truth be told, they might have trouble hitting as high of a gear as they did late last season when Beal and Russell Westbrook powered them to a 17-6 finish.
If they aren't contending with Beal now, when is that supposed to happen? It's not like they're overloaded with internal paths to major improvement. Deni Avdija should have his best basketball in front of him, and maybe Isaiah Todd emerges as a find as this year's 31st pick. But Kispert offers more floor than ceiling, and even if Rui Hachimura has some late-bloomer potential, he's still a 23-year-old, inside-the-arc scorer.
If Beal needs to see a map to the championship, he might need a change of address. And if he wants out, all bets are off for the Wizards at the deadline. They'd hold on to the young guys, but everyone else might be available to the highest bidder. Beal could deliver a king's ransom, and the Wizards will have an easier time navigating the trade market after turning Westbrook's mammoth contract into more digestible deals.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Contract information via Spotrac.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.