Now that the 2019-20 NBA season, the longest in league history, has come to an end it is time to start looking ahead to next year. While it remains unknown exactly when the 2020-21 campaign will begin, with January appearing to be the earliest possible starting point, the NBA Draft is just over a month away (November 18) and free agency will come shortly thereafter. Of course that all depends on the collective bargaining agreement negotiations between the league and the NBPA, as those talks will set both the salary cap and luxury tax numbers for next season.
Uncertainty remains but that doesn’t prohibit us from taking a look at each team and an area that they’ll need to address during the offseason. Over the next three weeks each division will be discussed, with the Central being the focus of this installment. While Milwaukee has designs on winning a championship and Indiana is looking to take the next step, the other three teams are in the midst of rebuilding projects. Below is an area of need for each team, with Chicago being first up.
2019-20 Record: 22-43 (3rd, Central)
2020 NBA Draft Picks: 4, 44 (from Memphis)
Area to Address: Unlocking Lauri Markkanen’s potential
A new era has begun in the Windy City, with Arturas Karnisovas and Mark Eversley calling the shots in the front office and Billy Donovan serving as head coach. Donovan, who had a successful run in Oklahoma City, will be presiding over a team that was the second-youngest in the NBA this past season. Zach LaVine is the top scoring option, and point guard Coby White made strides and was an effective scorer off the bench. There’s no shortage of young talent on this roster but Jim Boylen was unable to get the most out of those players, hence Karnisovas’ decision to let him go once the regular season officially ended.
So what will the biggest key for the Bulls be as they prepare for the 2020-21 campaign? It would have to be unlocking Lauri Markkanen’s full potential. Even with the free agency-related question marks on the perimeter, getting Markkanen untracked is something that has to happen as he’s due to be a restricted free agent next offseason. In 50 starts last season he posted averages of 14.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks and 2.2 3-pointers per game, shooting 42.5 percent from the field, 34.4 percent from three and 82.4 percent from the foul line. Outside of the 3-pointers, assists and steals, those were the worst numbers of his three-year career.
Just as a change of scenery can benefit a player, so can a coaching change and some fresh ideas of how to best utilize their talent. Donovan and his staff in Oklahoma City did well working with young players, and it isn’t as if Markkanen can’t play. There is skill in that 7-foot, 240-pound frame, and he’s proven in the past that he’s capable of forcing teams to defend him out beyond the three-point line. There are other key questions to address this offseason, including who starts at the point (White or veteran Tomas Satoransky), but getting Markkanen going would really aid Chicago as it rebuilds.
2019-20 Record: 19-46 (5th, Central)
2020 NBA Draft Picks: 5
With ten players having three or fewer years of NBA experience on the roster, it was understandable that Cleveland struggled mightily last season. The expectation was that John Beilein would grow with this young roster but that obviously didn’t happen, as he stepped down after 54 games with J.B. Bickerstaff moving into the vacated seat. Bickerstaff is the man in charge now, and the most important issue that he’ll need to deal with is the way in which starting guards Darius Garland and Collin Sexton are utilized.
Both arrived in the NBA used to having the ball in their hands a lot, and at times last season they struggled due to both that and their inexperience. Bickerstaff has challenged both to get better at playing without the ball in their hands this offseason, and Garland and Sexton were able to work on this some during the Cavaliers’ minicamp as well. Both can stand to be more efficient players, with Garland finishing his rookie season with an offensive rating of 96 while turning the ball over four times per game. Hopefully he’ll be able to boost that rating in year two like Sexton was, as the second-year guard’s offensive rating jumped from 101 to 108.
The frontcourt shouldn’t lack for depth even if Tristan Thompson were to move on to a team better equipped to contend now, especially with Andre Drummond expected to opt into the final year of his deal (worth more than $25.4 million). And wings Kevin Porter Jr. and Dylan Windler are worth tracking as well, especially the latter as he missed all of last season due to a stress reaction in his leg. But whether or not the Cavs can climb out of the Central cellar will depend largely upon the development of Garland and Sexton.
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2019-20 Record: 20-46 (4th, Central)
2020 NBA Draft Picks: 7
Free Agents: Christian Wood, Brandon Knight, John Henson, Langston Galloway (unrestricted); Thon Maker, Jordan Bone, Justin Patton, Louis King (restricted); Tony Snell (player option); Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (team option)
Area to Address: Point guard
Moving the aforementioned Drummond at the trade deadline and waiving Reggie Jackson freed up some money for Detroit, which was key for a team that was spending too much money to not even be close to contending for a playoff spot. Detroit’s most important free agent this offseason is Wood, as he enjoyed a breakout 2019-20 campaign and shouldn’t lack for interest on the open market. Detroit holds Wood’s Early Bird rights which will help matters, and given Drummond’s exit and Blake Griffin’s health issues there’s a clear need to re-sign him.
But the area that Detroit truly needs to address this offseason, via either the draft or free agency, is the point guard position. Derrick Rose is the only point guard on the roster who’s under contract for next season, but he will be an unrestricted free agent in 2021. Detroit has just one pick in next month’s draft, seventh overall, and Killian Hayes could be an available option at that spot. The Pistons don’t lack for young off-guards/wings, but the franchise is still in need of its point guard of the future as Rose will be 32 next October.
2019-20 Record: 45-28 (2nd, Central)
2020 NBA Draft Picks: 54
Area to Address: Victor Oladipo’s future
The Pacers have reached the postseason in each of the last five seasons but they’ve failed to advance, hence the decision to fire Nate McMillan just days after the Heat swept them out of the bubble. Indiana has taken a deliberate approach to hiring a new head coach, as the vacancy remains unfilled heading into draft “season.” That’s clearly an area that the Pacers brass will need to address, but there’s another issue that could prove problematic if ignored: Victor Oladipo’s future.
Oladipo developed into a franchise player upon his return to the state in which he played his college basketball, but the ruptured quadriceps tendon suffered in January 2019 was a watershed moment for both player and franchise. He was able to return to action this past January, and after originally being undecided on playing in the bubble Oladipo did just that. From a recovery standpoint one would expect that he’ll be closer to full strength next season than he was at any point in the aftermath of his return this season.
But with there being reports that Oladipo, who has one year remaining on his contract, could be looking for the exit this offseason Indiana needs to figure this out. Having T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb in the fold helps from a numbers standpoint, but the Pacers may need to be proactive if those reports ring true. What would the trade market for Oladipo be, given the rust shown once he returned from the quad injury? The answer to the Oladipo situation stands to impact the franchise for years to come, even with the remaining talent on the roster.
2019-20 Record: 56-17 (1st, Central)
2020 NBA Draft Picks: 24
Area to Address: Adding a consistent playmaker
Two seasons in a row the Bucks have finished with the NBA’s best regular season record, but Milwaukee was unable to get out of the East. Giannis Antetokounmpo injuring his ankle early in the Miami series certainly didn’t help matters, but that Heat team appeared poised to bounce the Bucks out of the postseason as far back as the trade deadline. This will be arguably the most important offseason in franchise history, as Antetokounmpo can become an unrestricted free agent in 2021. Of course Milwaukee can offer him a max deal now, which would be the wise thing to do, but who’s to say that the two-time MVP doesn’t take the approach of playing things out?
For that reason the Bucks need to add a player (or players) to the rotation who’s capable of making plays offensively when teams are able to keep Giannis from running out in transition. Even when he was healthy the lack of consistent creators was problematic. Khris Middleton performed well but he wouldn’t qualify as a prolific playmaker, and Eric Bledsoe has been relatively quiet in each of the last two postseasons. Milwaukee doesn’t stand to gain a great deal of cap room this offseason, either. Kyle Korver and Pat Connaughton will be unrestricted free agents, while Wesley Matthews (just under $2.7 million) and Robin Lopez (just over $5 million) have player options.
Milwaukee may be able to land a rotation-caliber player with its first-round pick, with TCU guard Desmond Bane representing a good option given his abilities as both a shooter and defender. But the Bucks’ biggest move(s) would likely need to come in the trade market given the team’s lack of cap space, and the need to make it emphatically clear to Giannis that the franchise remains committed to making a run at the title now.