NBA Exit Interviews Part 2: What’s Next For The Losers Of The NBA’s Second Round
The NBA Conference Finals have tipped off as the Celtics take on the Cavaliers and the Warriors clash with the Rockets for the right to represent the Eastern and Western Conferences (respectively) in the NBA Finals. Last time we looked at the biggest concerns for the Western Conference teams that lost in first round. Today we’ll take a look at what’s next for the Eastern and Western Conference teams that bowed out in the second round.
New Orleans Pelicans
After surprising many with a dominant sweep of the Blazers in the first round, the Pelicans bowed out to the force that is the Golden State Warriors in 5 games. As they head into the offseason, the Pelicans face some major questions and almost all of them revolve around one player: DeMarcus Cousins. After Cousins went down with an Achilles injury, the Pelicans finished the season strong. With Davis shifting to center, they went 20-10 over their final 30 games to move up to the West’s 6-seed and that success carried through to the postseason. Given how well they played and the nature of Cousins’ injury, it’s fair for the team to take pause at the thought of offering Cousins a long-term max contract.
Their ceiling as a team could be higher with Cousins, no other team could boast arguably the two best big men in the game, but they might be better suited long-term by surrounding Davis with more versatile 3-and-D wings. The team will also have to see what they can do to bring Rondo back after the year he had leading the team. It will certainly be interesting to see what market Cousins commands this summer and the Pelicans’ decision could swing the immediate future of their franchise or another.
After losing Gordon Hayward in the offseason, the Donovan Mitchell-led Jazz surprised many this season, winning 48 games and earning the West’s 5-seed and upsetting Russell Westbrook’s Thunder before falling to the Rockets in 5 games in the second round of the playoffs. With Ricky Rubio hurt, the Jazz couldn’t muster enough offense against Houston but they’ll need to get Donovan Mitchell even more help on that end. They’re currently over the cap, but could try and acquire someone like Jabari Parker through a sign and trade. That improvement could also come from within. Dante Exum has struggled with injuries and inconsistency during his time in the league but he’s still only 22 and he showed encouraging flashes with his athleticism and defense on Harden against the Rockets. He’ll be a restricted free agent this offseason and it would behoove the Jazz to retain him and see if he can fulfill the potential they saw in him when they drafted him 4 years ago. With a potential superstar in Mitchell and one of the league’s best coaches in Quin Snyder, the Jazz have a bright future regardless of what they do this offseason.
Behind Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, the 76ers won 52 games, including a 20-3 run to end the season, and earned the East’s 3-seed. It’s safe to say the Process is paying off. The Sixers quickly dealt with the Heat in the first round but after losing to the Celtics in five games in the second round, they’re left to wonder how they can take the next step as a team.
One thing they could do is continue to let things play their course. Simmons is coming off his rookie season, Embiid is only 24, and Markelle Fultz, last year’s number 1 pick, didn’t play much until the end of the regular season. Improvement from all three is inevitable and the team’s ceiling will continue to rise as their young core improves. However, the team’s success this season showed that they could be ready to compete for a championship as soon as next season. The Sixers have a unique opportunity this offseason: with $25 million in cap space, they’re one of the teams in the LeBron James sweepstakes and even if they don’t get him, they could also go after Paul George. Getting one of these two would require some sacrifices. That cap number doesn’t include the team options for T.J. McConnell and Richaun Holmes, each worth $1.6 million. Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova, and J.J. Redick, all key role players on this year’s team, will be unrestricted free agents this offseason. Acquiring a top-flight talent like James or George should be worth losing at least a couple of these players but that’s for Philly’s front office to decide.
There could be a third option for the Sixers to acquire another superstar. Kawhi Leonard may be on the table after the disagreement over his injury damaged his relationship with the Spurs this past season. Armed with Markelle Fultz, the number 10 pick in this year’s draft and a couple other interesting assets (Robert Covington, Dario Saric, etc.), the Sixers could put together an offer that would interest San Antonio. Whatever they do this offseason, the Sixers are in a good position to contend for years to come but adding a third star would go a long way in pushing them past the Celtics as Eastern Conference favorites the next few years.
It was supposed to be different this year for the Raptors. Behind DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and arguably the league’s deepest bench, Toronto finished as the league’s only team with a top-5 offensive and defensive rating and had the league’s second-best record (59-23, 1st in the East). Once again, however, it wasn’t enough to beat LeBron James and the Cavaliers as they swept the Raptors for the second year in a row. As a result, the Raptors fired their head coach Dwayne Casey.
The Raptors’ questions this offseason start with who they’ll hire as their next head coach. After the Bucks signed Mike Budenholzer, Toronto’s preferred candidate is off the market. They could look to hire Becky Hammon, who’s worked under Gregg Popovich with the Spurs since 2014 and would be the NBA’s first woman head coach. They could also go after former Cavs head coach David Blatt.
On the personnel front, the Raptors may be tempted to break up their backcourt. There are reports that they considered trading DeRozan before the season and they could open up talks again this summer. Whether or not they trade Lowry or DeRozan, there are still some intriguing young pieces on the team that could continue to raise their ceiling going forward. OG Anunoby, Jakob Poeltl, and Fred VanVleet represent a bright future for the team. If they can’t fetch a lottery pick or another star by moving one of their guards, the Raptors might just be best suited running it back again next year.