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While the NBA offseason is all about thinking ahead, teams can gain a lot of valuable information from retracing their steps, too.
As tempting as it might be for some to hold a victory lap this summer, the truth is teams—like all of us—can learn the most from their own mistakes.
Reliving regrets can be a painful process at first, but we’re here to yank off the Band-Aid by spotlighting every squad’s biggest regret of the past year.
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The Hawks spent last summer locking in the core responsible for their sprint to the Eastern Conference Finals. After that same nucleus managed only a first-round exit this time around—needing a pair of play-in tournament wins just to secure the No. 8 seed—Atlanta has since recognized the need for external assistance.
“We made the decision last year…to run the same group back,” Hawks president of basketball operations Travis Schlenk said on 92.9 The Game. “… We probably should’ve tried to upgrade as opposed to stay status quo. … The way the season played out, we’re certainly going to try to upgrade the roster moving forward into next season.”
Trae Young lacks a legitimate co-star, the perimeter defense is desperate for an elite stopper, and this roster looks ripe for a consolidation deal. A busy offseason isn’t just the expectation for Atlanta—it’s a necessity if this team hopes to level up.
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The Celtics were squeezed for spacing throughout the season. Garrison Mathews could have provided more breathing room had Boston not waived him a week before the campaign tipped.
The sharpshooter, who splashed 38.9 percent of his long-range looks over the two previous seasons, declined a two-way pact in hopes of finding a full NBA deal, per The Athletic’s Jared Weiss. The Shamrocks instead penciled Jabari Parker and Bruno Fernando into their last two big-league roster spots.
Parker, of course, was waived in January, while Fernando was dumped in the deadline deal for Daniel Theis. Mathews, meanwhile, inked a two-way pact with the Houston Rockets in October and had it converted to a standard contract by December. He finished the season with 139 threes and a 36 percent connection rate. Those numbers would’ve put Mathews third on the Shamrocks in makes and third in accuracy among their volume shooters.
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The second Kevin Durant decided to come to Brooklyn in 2019, the Nets were on the clock. So, why weren’t they acting with more urgency at the 2021 deadline?
Despite spinning their tires for much of this season—thanks in no small part to a rash of big-name absences—they had a path to contention by virtue of rostering Durant. Still, the 33-year-old needed more help, and Brooklyn had a major trade chip to go find one in the disgruntled (but still super productive) James Harden.
When the Nets finally sent Harden packing, their primary return was Ben Simmons, who hadn’t suited up all season and wouldn’t from that point forward, either. They also plucked a pair of first-round picks in the exchange, which could have been chips for separate exchanges, but neither was dealt. They could have even kicked the tires on a Kyrie Irving trade and arguably should have since they’re now “outright unwilling to give him a long-term extension,” per Kristian Winfield of the New York Daily News.
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The center position has been a sore spot in Charlotte ever since Al Jefferson exited, which made it startling to see the Hornets not give it more attention over the past calendar year.
Sure, they tried a few Band-Aid solutions, between trades for Mason Plumlee and Montrezl Harrell and the first-round selection of Kai Jones, but even their best-case scenarios were never going to be good enough. You know what might have worked, though? Trading for Jakob Poeltl, which was reportedly discussed but fell apart amid “haggling over the potential inclusion of a first-round pick,” per HoopsHype’s Michael Scotto.
The Hornets, of course, could aim even higher this summer and try poaching the likes of Deandre Ayton, Rudy Gobert or Myles Turner. The point is, they need to do something, as the rest of this roster looks ready to get rolling. While a single position isn’t solely responsible for these numbers, it’s impossible not to draw parallels between Charlotte’s issues at center and its bottom-third rankings in defensive efficiency (22nd) and rebounding percentage (27th).
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The Chicago Bulls bet that inactivity trumped any potential move at the trade deadline. The thought process certainly had its merits, as they were seeded third in the Eastern Conference at the time and had several key players—including Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and Patrick Williams—working their way back from injury.
“We were taking calls, but basically the mutual feeling with all of our group was that, let’s get our guys back,” executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas said, per The Athletic’s Darnell Mayberry. “We’re going to have enough time in the regular season to see what this group can do when they’re all healthy.”
Well, Ball never got healthy, and both Caruso and Williams failed to meet expectations upon their return. Chicago wound up slipping to sixth in the East and was bounced from the first round by the Milwaukee Bucks in five games.
The Bulls still probably don’t have a full grasp on this roster and may never get one, as Zach LaVine’s return in free agency is no longer viewed as a “slam dunk,” per K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago, and there are concerns about the lack of progress with Ball’s knee. Windows can close quickly in this league, and if LaVine seeks out greener pastures, it’s possible Chicago’s already did.
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This is, more or less, an admission that it’s hard to nitpick this smashing success of a season in Cleveland.
Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen made All-Star leaps. Evan Mobley flashed superstar potential en route to a silver-medal finish in the Rookie of the Year race. J.B. Bickerstaff garnered Coach of the Year support. Even the seemingly stranded Kevin Love found new life as a net-shredding sixth man.
Decision-wise, there isn’t much to second-guess here. Maybe the Cavs could’ve pushed harder, sooner for wing help, but even that criticism falls apart if Caris LeVert hits his stride in Northeast Ohio. So, the Cavs are instead left lamenting only their missed opportunities in their two play-in tournament losses. It didn’t diminish the excitement around this ascending core, but a bit of actual playoff experience could have further accelerated the maturation process.
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At some point—or at several of them—the Mavs miscalculated the trajectory of Jalen Brunson. They had multiple chances to lock up the rising star on a four-year extension for as much as $55.5 million, which clearly would have been clearance-priced in hindsight. However, Dallas never made the offer until it was clearly too late.
“He didn’t turn s–t down,” his father, Rick Brunson, told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon. “Y’all declined first. When y’all came back to him, we said, ‘Hey, we just want to finish out the season and go from there.'”
This story’s soundtrack since is just a loop of cash register sounds. Brunson’s numbers climbed over the course of the campaign and crested in the playoffs, where he averaged 21.6 points on 46.6 percent shooting across 18 contests against elite competition. His next salary could sit north of $20 million, and the Mavs either need to foot the bill or hope they can snag something decent in a sign-and-trade.
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Evaluating the Nuggets is tricky since injuries to Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. always demanded Denver be graded on a curve. Still, you wonder if this front office laments not doing things a little differently since Nikola Jokic’s campaign for the ages resulted in nothing more than being gentlemanly swept out of the opening round.
More specifically, the Nuggets might rethink the size of their supporting cast.
Their decision to task 6’8″ JaMychal Green as the primary backup big never panned out, as he regressed to the point Denver eventually had to take a 10-day flier on free agent DeMarcus Cousins (which panned out tremendously, for what that’s worth). The Nuggets also left themselves too small on the perimeter, where the 6’4″ and under trio of Austin Rivers, Bones Hyland and Bryn Forbes monopolized the bench wing minutes.
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In versatile, veteran forward Jerami Grant, the rebuilding Pistons had the “grand prize” of this trade deadline, as one team strategist described Grant to B/R’s Jake Fischer.
Detroit could have converted the now-28-year-old swingman into assets that eventually fit alongside 20-year-old centerpiece Cade Cunningham. The Athletic’s James L. Edwards III later wrote that “nothing worthwhile materialized” for Detroit, though Edwards also noted the Pistons “were in no rush to trade Grant.”
It’s one thing to be patient. It’s another to be unrealistic to the point of destroying any potential deals. The Pistons seemingly felt the market for Grant will be just as robust this offseason, and there’s a chance they’ll be proved right. Still, with free agency awaiting Grant next summer, teams might be more reluctant to part with premier assets for someone who’s now only a single-season rental.
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The Warriors just used a 12-4 stampede through the Western Conference to reclaim what had been their annual invitation to the NBA Finals. The correct answer is probably that this group has zero regrets.
Still, the ongoing absence of James Wiseman is frustrating and could’ve loomed as something far more severe had Golden State stumbled along its path out of the West. He has had a pair of surgeries in the past 13 months to address a torn meniscus in his right knee and had to abandon his comeback plan in March.
Maybe this is early adversity in what will otherwise prove to be a storied career. There was a time, you may remember, when injury issues loomed large over Stephen Curry. In other words, this doesn’t have to become some sort of defining narrative. Having said that, the Warriors are heavily invested in Wiseman, last year’s No. 2 pick, and have so far received almost zero return on the investment. If a weakness that could’ve been solved with a Wiseman trade winds up derailing this group’s championship hopes, that would be a gut punch.
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Space City was problematically quiet at the trade deadline.
The rebuilding Rockets, who had this season’s worst record, could have outfit contenders with plug-and-play contributors like scoring stretch big Christian Wood and three-and-D ace Eric Gordon. More importantly, they could have fetched some prime assets in the process, since Wood’s versatility and Gordon’s experience and skill might have been major gets for win-now shoppers.
Yet, the deadline somehow came and went with barely a peep from the Rockets, who only ducked out of Daniel Theis’ contract and brought back buyout candidate Dennis Schroder—who wasn’t bought out. Houston can still shop Wood and Gordon this offseason, but the offers may not be as rich since Wood has only a season left on his contract and Gordon effectively does too, as his 2023-24 salary is non-guaranteed.
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The Pacers were right to reverse course at the deadline. Their core was capped at sorta decent, and if nothing else, resetting around Tyrese Haliburton offered a chance to raise that ceiling over time.
Too bad they couldn’t go full fire-sale mode, though part of that was outside of their control (Myles Turner’s foot injury). What was directly their doing, though, was the two-year extension that made Malcolm Brogdon ineligible to be traded.
Obviously, they weren’t planning an organizational pivot at the time it was signed, but it still felt shortsighted with the franchise having failed to win a single playoff series since 2014. The pay rate wasn’t egregious for his production (two years, $45 million), but it was a pinch aggressive for someone with his injury history and could make him tricky to move.
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Technically, the Clippers carried three point guards into this past season, but there were essentially catches with all three.
Starter Reggie Jackson had a really strong playoff run (which netted him a two-year, $22 million deal), but he was fairly forgettable before that. Backup Eric Bledsoe, acquired at the expense of energizer Patrick Beverley, was a perennial playoff disappointment as his offensive limitations were too severe to hide. Rookie Jason Preston seemed mildly intriguing, but only offered so much potential assistance as a rookie second-rounder.
Well, Jackson’s shooting tanked while his turnovers climbed, Bledsoe was traded before the deadline and Preston was lost to foot surgery before ever seeing the floor. The Clippers are “expected to pursue a point guard” this offseason, per Andrew Greif of the Los Angeles Times, and they should have pursued the position more fervently the last time around.
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The Lakers were light on trade chips when they entered last offseason, having previously parted with a big chunk of them for Anthony Davis. For reasons known only to them, they effectively shipped out the rest—Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and a first-round pick—for Russell Westbrook, who immediately clogged both the payroll and the offensive end.
Westbrook’s fit looked poor on paper and proved worse in practice. The Lakers were 2.4 points worse per 100 possessions with him than without. They lost the minutes he played with LeBron James by 1.5 points per 100 possessions. The Westbrook-Anthony Davis duo was outscored by 4.5 points per 100 possessions across 1,024 minutes. When Westbrook was the solo star, L.A. was drubbed by 7.3 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.
Westbrook’s career-worst 15.0 player efficiency equals the league average. His $47.1 million player option is the Association’s fourth-highest salary. Between the colossal cost and the declining contributions, the Westbrook gamble is the obvious choice here, even though L.A.’s decision to let Alex Caruso walk in free agency is more regrettable than a lot of this list.
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You could make an argument for Memphis having zero regrets, since a season that was light on external expectations wound up resulting in a surge to second in the Western Conference standings.
And yet, had the Grizzlies’ front office felt such an ascension was coming already, maybe they would have gone more aggressive last summer. Instead, they prioritized the long-term future over the short-term one, sacrificing Jonas Valanciunas, going the risk-reward route with No. 10 pick Ziaire Williams, shipping out Grayson Allen and taking a flier on former lottery pick Jarrett Culver.
Memphis, it seemed, plotted for slow-but-steady, linear growth around Ja Morant. His leap to superstardom, enshrined by the Most Improved Player award, fast-forwarded everything. The Grizzlies had an objectively awesome season, but they potentially could have taken this journey even farther had they thought more of today than tomorrow.
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Jimmy Butler took the Heat as far as he could carry them. Turns out, that was a few seconds shy of an NBA Finals trip. The 6’7″ swingman emptied his fuel tank and then some, navigating around knee inflammation to log at least 40 minutes in Miami’s final three contests (including all 48 of Game 7) and pumping in 82 points over the last two.
“Jimmy has this competitive will that is so unique that is a talent unto itself,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, per ESPN’s Nick Friedell. “There’s a lot of basketball players in this league. Jimmy is a great basketball player. He’s a world-class competitor and he knows how to win basketball games.”
Butler almost willed Miami to the Finals, and the effort was breathtaking to behold. It also carried an air of frustration over the front office failing to put more support around him. Injuries exacerbated the issue, but Butler was a solo star for much of these playoffs. The Heat didn’t have anyone else average 15 points this postseason, and three of their other four double-digit scorers shot worse than 41 percent from the field.
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Last season, the Bucks snapped a 50-year championship drought. P.J. Tucker logged the fourth-most minutes of that playoff run, which somehow wasn’t enough to convince Milwaukee to run it back.
“They just weren’t going over the luxury tax,” Tucker told Andscape’s Marc J. Spears. “It just is what it is. They love you and whatever, whatever, but they weren’t going to go over it. They felt like they could replace me, and they did replace me.”
Truth be told, the Bucks never really replaced Tucker, and their defense never had the same bite. Seeing him jump to the Miami Heat and subsequently play a critical role in their run to the conference finals had to be tough to stomach.
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On the court, Minnesota’s season was a clear success, as the franchise not only secured just its second playoff trip since 2004 but also managed to push the second-seeded Grizzlies to six games in the opening round.
Off the court, though, things were bumpy from the start. In September, a normal quiet time between the offseason makeover period and the beginning of training camp, the Wolves split from then-president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas. The timing threw everyone for a loop—Karl-Anthony Towns included.
B/R’s Jake Fischer reported that Rosas was ousted upon ownership learning of “a consensual extramarital affair between Rosas and a female Timberwolves staffer.” However, Fischer noted there were “long-standing rumors of Rosas’ hot seat” and “friction” within the front office.
If the Wolves were leaning in this direction—or at least seriously considering it—it’s fair to wonder why they let Rosas call the shots on draft night and in free agency before pulling the plug. The sudden change put the club in a strange spot, and this team, which was under .500 into late January, took a ton of time to find its stride.
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It was tempting to go with letting Lonzo Ball walk, but his contract isn’t cheap (four years, $85 million) and his nagging knee trouble could get the Pels off the hook in hindsight.
There is, however, no saving grace when it comes to Devonte’ Graham.
He was a flawed player when he came on board by way of a four-year, $47 million deal, which also cost New Orleans the No. 15 pick in its sign-and-trade with Charlotte. Graham’s flaws surfaced early and often in the Crescent City, where he shot a miserable 36.3 percent overall and a forgettable 34.1 percent from range. CJ McCollum’s arrival bumped Graham out of the starting lineup, while Jose Alvarado’s ascension effectively nabbed Graham’s rotation role.
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The idea of Kemba Walker, a Bronx native, returning to New York and finally solving this squad’s long-standing issues at point guard was objectively fun.
Of course, it was never meant to be. Maybe a younger, healthier Walker could have saved Gotham, but his 30-something version proved powerless against the Knicks’ issues at point guard.
Now, could Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau have shown more patience with Walker? Sure, but the stat sheet agreed with Thibodeau’s assessment that the experiment didn’t need to carry on any longer. Walker, who was shut down in February, had the worst net differential of any Knicks regular at a whopping minus-11.5 points per 100 possessions.
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The Thunder remain in the asset-accumulation phase of their rebuilding project and will be there until they ever start converting some of their trade chips into tangible contributors.
That makes it curious as to why Oklahoma City didn’t use 27-year-old Kenrich Williams to help accumulate more assets at the trade deadline.
His market should have been relatively robust—or as robust as it can be for someone with a 6.5 career scoring average. Still, he’s the dirty-work kind of glue guy who can make a good team better. His hustle, defensive versatility and good-enough outside shooting (39.1 percent since the start of last season) presumably had contenders lined up and ready to send something of value back to the Sooner State.
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Ever since the Magic waded into rebuilding waters at the 2021 trade deadline, Terrence Ross has loomed as one of the league’s most obvious trade candidates.
That must have made it all the more discouraging for Orlando’s front office to watch the veteran swingman’s numerical nose-dive.
His 10 points per game were his fewest in four seasons. His 39.7 field-goal percentage and 29.2 three-point percentage were both the worst of his career. For a player who may only interest win-now shoppers as a quick-strike scorer, the offensive regression tanked his trade value.
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Admittedly, the 76ers deserve some credit for not caving to early pressure and finding a way to trade a disgruntled Ben Simmons for James Harden. Let’s just hope the front office knew which version of the bearded baller it was getting.
“Obviously, I’m sure since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden, but that’s not who he is anymore,” Joel Embiid told reporters. “He’s more of a playmaker. I thought, at times, as with all of us, could’ve been more aggressive.”
Harden had one of the worst shooting seasons of his career and flopped in some of Philly’s biggest playoff moments, including finishing with just 11 points on nine shots in the Sixers’ season-ending loss to the Miami Heat.
His struggles sustained long enough this season to wonder whether he has lost a step or simply struggled to ever put a nagging hamstring problem behind him. Unfortunately, the 76ers may not have time to figure this out before attaching a dollar amount to this new version of Harden. If he doesn’t pick up his $47.4 million player option, he’ll immediately become one of the most fascinating and polarizing players in this year’s free-agent class.
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The Suns were heavyweight contenders (if not championship favorites) until they weren’t.
The manner in which they were floored by the fourth-seeded Dallas Mavericks—who, after falling into an 0-2 hole, eventually rallied and took Games 6 and 7 by a combined 60 points—ranks as one of the most shocking stories of the postseason. The bigger picture narrative, though, holds more importance around the hoops world.
Had the Suns, who weren’t playoff regulars before last year’s sprint to the Finals, just seen their championship window closed? That feels partially premature given the age of some of its key contributors, but 37-year-old Chris Paul is up against the clock, and center Deandre Ayton is no guarantee to stick around in restricted free agency. Not to mention, the West will grow exponentially more difficult as teams like the Clippers and Nuggets return to full strength.
Letting this chance slip by could haunt the Suns for years (or decades) to come.
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The Blazers are a tricky evaluation since there were essentially two dramatically different seasons played in Portland.
The first involved pushing for maximum competitiveness behind Damian Lillard. The next was a race to the bottom without the All-Star point guard.
Portland made trades in both directions, including deals that brought in and later shipped out Larry Nance Jr. In addition to Nance, the Blazers also parted with CJ McCollum, Norman Powell and Robert Covington, all of whom held plug-and-play appeal for win-now shoppers. So, why didn’t the Blazers do better on the trade market? In terms of long-term assets, they added Josh Hart, a first-round pick (replacing one they traded for Nance) and maybe Keon Johnson. That’s all. Yikes.
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De’Aaron Fox offers more flash than Tyrese Haliburton. Fox is a superior athlete, has better scoring numbers (for now, at least) and delivers louder highlights.
Does any of the above guarantee Fox will have a better NBA career than Haliburton? Not at all, which is worrisome for Sacramento, since it chose to build around Fox instead of Haliburton, who was shipped out for Domantas Sabonis at the trade deadline.
The Kings get very little shooting from the Fox-Sabonis pairing and lack spacers around them. Building a competitive roster with them as the foundation could be a painstaking process, and the juice may never be worth the squeeze. Haliburton, meanwhile, looks like he can share the floor with anyone and arguably showed a higher ceiling over 26 games with Indiana than Fox has in five seasons as a King.
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When the Spurs sign-and-traded DeMar DeRozan to the Bulls last summer, the fact that they received Thaddeus Young as part of the return gave them a chance to extend the trade value. Essentially, they could roster Young as long as needed before a contender inevitably came calling with a trade offer involving some kind of rebuilding asset.
There was only one problem: San Antonio forgot to play Young. While the 33-year-old already had established value in the league, the Spurs had a chance to remind shoppers of everything he could bring. And since he plays such a low-maintenance style, he wasn’t going to muck up any player development programs beyond any minutes he pulled away from 25-year-old Drew Eubanks (no longer with the team) or 26-year-old Jock Landale.
For whatever reason, San Antonio mostly kept Young on the bench and out of the rotation. The Toronto Raptors eventually came calling, and while the Spurs gained a first-round pick, they really only moved up 13 spots (from No. 33 to No. 20) and had to buy out Goran Dragic to seal the deal.
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Clearly, the Raptors have some belief in Gary Trent Jr. Last season, they made him the centerpiece of their return package for Norman Powell. Then, they rewarded Trent with a three-year, $51.8 million deal over the offseason.
Unfortunately, they gave Trent an early out by making the final season an $18.6 million player option. It basically put the Raptors in a no-win situation. If Trent failed to live up to the contract, he could stick around as an overpaid player in 2023-24.
That he has earned his keep and then some is objectively good, but it could complicate things moving forward. By emerging as both a feisty defender and 18.3-point scorer who shoots the three with volume (3.0 makes per game) and efficiency (38.3), he is setting himself up to ditch the player option next summer and land an even more lucrative deal, whether that’s in Toronto or elsewhere.
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You could make an argument for Mike Conley’s three-year, $68 million deal, since he really showed his age in the postseason. However, the Jazz had no other options to replace Conley if he left in free agency, plus they safeguarded some of that pact by only partially guaranteeing the final season.
The real front-office failure is not doing more (or, anything, really) to beef up the perimeter defense. They chased depth and versatility at center by adding both Rudy Gay and Hassan Whiteside in free agency and grabbed an undersized guard in 6’3″ Jared Butler at the draft. The wing spots were virtually untouched.
Fast-forward to the playoffs, and Utah lacked the length and defense on the perimeter to contain a Dallas Mavericks attack that only had Luka Doncic for half of the series. If the Jazz wind up tearing down this core, they’ll regret not doing more to plug their perimeter defensive leaks.
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The Wizards could be a matter of weeks away from committing nearly a quarter-billion dollars to Bradley Beal. Well, that or orchestrating a blockbuster sign-and-trade that bolsters their asset collection and pivots them into an entirely new direction.
It still isn’t entirely clear which direction Washington should turn, which feels like its own kind of failure.
The Wizards keep trying to add new co-stars with Beal. After John Wall, it was Russell Westbrook. When that didn’t work, they moved on to Spencer Dinwiddie. Now, they’re the latest team hoping they can keep Kristaps Porzingis healthy. All the while, this organization has never resembled an NBA elite but also not bottomed out enough to access blue-chip prospects.
The Wizards should have a clear direction by now. Paying Beal an enormous amount of cash and hoping for the best won’t cut it.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.