The most striking thing about the eight teams eliminated in the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs is that all of them are in pretty good shape heading into the offseason. While several must be massively disappointed after falling short of expectations, many are young teams and others have stable cores. A couple of them also have big ol' asterisks on their exits in the form of injuries.
Putting all of that into consideration, here's a look at how well those eight eliminated teams are set up to go further next season.
There are two things going on with Golden State as the offseason arrives. The first is that no one knows whether Mark Jackson will be back. The Warriors haven't had this kind of success — back-to-back visits to the postseason, that is — since the early '90s. Jackson seemed to end the parade of two-bit coaches running Golden State to 50-loss seasons. But did he really? Or did the roster built by the front office end the suffering?
Warriors fight the Clippers
Warriors fight the Clippers
Add in the off-court drama Jackson has had with ownership and the front office — including allegations that the front office had a since-fired assistant coach covertly record meetings with Jackson — and you have a mess. The hurt feelings between Jackson and owner Joe Lacob apparently stem from the lack of a long-term contract last offseason. After the turmoil on Jackson's staff late this season and a valiant but disappointing first-round exit, can you see Lacob offering a long-term deal now? It's doubtful.
So there's one big thing going on with Jackson. The other thing is that there is really nothing else going on with the Warriors. The entire core is under contract because the front office rolled the dice on extending Andrew Bogut before the season. (They may not have made that decision right now after the ever-injured Bogut missed the playoffs.) The Warriors could shake up the roster with a major trade, or they could bring back basically everybody with a new coach a la the 2013-14 Grizzlies. Despite the coaching uncertainty, the Warriors are in brilliant shape for next season.
The story is similar in Houston, where the Rockets will only see a bunch of roster churn if they want to see it happen. It would appear that Kevin McHale will stick around at least another year despite the common belief that Terry Stotts ate his lunch in the first round. Dwight Howard and James Harden are still two of the best players in the league at their positions, if not the best. The problem is Harden's defense and shaky production elsewhere on the roster.
The one big decision the Rockets must make involves Chandler Parsons' contract. The team can decline its team option to make him an expensive restricted free agent. That'd basically ensure he's around for three more years, but it'd cut into Houston's already bloated cap sheet. Or, the Rockets can pick up the cheap team option, making him an unrestricted free agent in 2015. That's a bit of a dice roll, but I've argued that's the route to go unless Parsons' agent cuts a sweetheart deal in June.
Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik are the two blinking-light trade pieces, but their contracts are a little fat for their production. Houston tried desperately to move Asik for multiple draft picks during the season; we'll see if they get a nibble or stop trying in the offseason. Lin's a tougher case because the market is totally unknown and, unlike at center, the Rockets don't have an All-Star at the position. Point guards are always in demand, and Houston could be tempted to change backcourt directions to help cover Harden.
Regardless, with Harden and Howard, the Rockets will always be in the playoff mix at worst. And there's a certain small forward discussed in the next paragraph who could be in play here, too.
Chicago had a wholly dispiriting series against the Wizards, with Joakim Noah getting bested by Nene and the offense looking very, well, Bullsian. But Derrick Rose is the first huge, blinking asterisk here. The 2011 MVP missed most of another season. He'll be back to try it again in October.
The second asterisk is cap space and a reported Carmelo Anthony chase. If the Bulls waive Carlos Boozer under the amnesty clause, they could pick up Melo or another near-max player. Given Chicago's offensive struggles, adding a top scorer like Melo would be incredibly huge, provided it doesn't ruin Tom Thibodeau's incredible defense.
The third and final asterisk is Nikola Mirotic, one of the best players in Europe. Everything suggests he'll finally join the Bulls this summer. Adding Mirotic could preclude a Melo chase or make such a chase irrelevant. Or, it could be part of a massive offseason campaign to push the Bulls way over the top, to build a new superteam in Chicago and erase the disappointment from recent seasons when there just hasn't been enough.
Toronto had the third youngest playoff team (behind Houston and Charlotte). It's the sort of squad where Amir Johnson was the veteran presence. Johnson and young All-Star DeMar DeRozan are locked up, as is developing center Jonas Valanciunas. A young team that went seven games in the first round. You'd think they'd be a sure bet to go further next year.
But what makes the Raptors a pretty shaky bet is how many key players will hit the open market. Kyle Lowry perhaps the team's best player, will be a very popular free agent, and he hasn't committed anything to Toronto. At best, he's expensive to retain. At worst, he's gone. In addition to Lowry, Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson are restricted free agents, and contract-wise it will make sense to waive John Salmons to save $7 million. So there's a lot of potential turnover here.
However, I can think of few GMs you'd rather have deal with some roster churn than Masai Ujiri. If he turned Bryan Colangelo's mess into the No. 3 seed, imagine what he'll do with some actual flexibility this offseason. Consider me high on Ujiri's ability to get Toronto even higher up the East charts by this time next year.
In the end, the Grizzlies were about as good in 2013-14 as they'd been in 2012-13 after you account for Marc Gasol's injury, which is a credit both to the front office's Rudy Gay trade and the coaching switch. Unfortunately for Memphis, Russell Westbrook stayed healthy for the 2014 playoffs and the Grizz didn't get past the Thunder in an attempt to get back to the West finals.
Mike Conley and Gasol are the most important pieces, and they're locked up and in their primes. Zach Randolph has a $17 million player option he's likely to pick up thanks to his age and love for Memphis. What's important is what happens on the margins. Nick Calathes did well as the back-up point guard, but he'll miss most of November because of suspension. The small forward spot remains a tire fire. Tony Allen struggled until getting the Kevin Durant assignment in the playoffs, and Memphis remains short on shooters. There's some real work to do on this roster.
But again, having Conley and Gasol in their primes is a huge advantage.
Just because the Bobcats don't figure to be as good as the other first round losers says more about those other teams. Charlotte broke .500 and finally broke out of the cellar. With Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker, they got just enough offense to survive. With Steve Clifford, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Gerald Henderson and Bismack Biyombo, they had an elite defense.
Charlotte got to 43 wins without getting much from lottery pick Cody Zeller, which is actually a good thing. He'll be expected to improve quite a bit, and that should push the Bobcats upward. They don't have their own No. 16 pick, but they'll grab Portland's No. 24, and they still have a valuable future Pistons pick. The main pieces remain locked in, and GM Rich Cho has a bunch of cap space to work with.
The only issue with using that cap space is that it's time to lock Kemba up to an early extension that would kick in for 2015-16, and there are no big contracts falling off the books next year. As such, and given the historical difficulty of pulling major free agents to Charlotte (Big Al excepted), we could be looking at serious trade potential for the Bobcats.
Along with Golden State and Chicago, this is a club that was missing a huge piece in the playoffs. Al Horford is one of the league's top 20 players and a major part of what Atlanta's trying to do. The Hawks with Al Horford would have beaten the Pacers. (They might have been the sixth seed or even higher, actually.)
In addition to that, the Hawks picked two project players in the last draft (Dennis Schroeder, Lucas Nogueira) and will be counting on them more in the future. Add in Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, the No. 15 pick and real cap space and Danny Ferry has an interesting offseason ahead.
Here's the old team it's easy to count out. I should know because I've foolishly done it for like five straight years. But Dirk Nowitzki keeps rattling out excellent seasons, and Donnie Nelson keeps summoning magic from the depth of free agency. Last year it was Monta Ellis, who had a surprisingly good campaign.
The two big issues heading into the offseason relate to Dallas' own free agents. Dirk is a free agent, and to be really aggressive on the market, the Mavericks may need him to take a steep pay cut. Will he do it? In addition, Shawn Marion is an unrestricted free agent as well. While the Dallas defense was abysmal this season, just imagine how much worse it'd be without Matrix.
These are some big issues, and there's not much upside on the roster. (The Dallas prospects, Shane Larkin and Ricky Ledo, were rather invisible all season.) But doubting the Mavericks just gets you into trouble, so I fully expect another playoff trip in 2015.