May 25, 2024

For Lakers, Suns and Heat, what now after NBA playoff exits? When going all-in goes wrong


Welcome to the offseason, Lakers, Suns and Heat. Glad to see you and all, but, uh … you’re a little early, aren’t you? We just started setting up chairs a few minutes ago, and the caterers haven’t even arrived yet. I mean, the Timberwolves haven’t even shown up yet, and they’re usually the first ones here. I’d been led to believe y’all weren’t coming until at least Memorial Day.

I kid a little because, in truth, the disappointing seasons by the Lakers, Suns and Heat weren’t that hard to imagine heading into the season, given the age and roster questions faced by each. Nonetheless, each came into October with much higher internal aspirations for this season based on the 2023 playoffs … and then combined to win a total of two measly playoff games.

The Heat played in the NBA Finals last year; the Lakers made the Western Conference finals and the Suns gave eventual champ Denver its toughest playoff test, in the second round. All had visions of realistic title contention this season, despite what the Nuggets did to them; in the end, none won 50 games or achieved a top-four seed, the minimum ante for being taken seriously in April. And unlike a year ago, the Lakers and Heat couldn’t offset their meh regular seasons with playoff upsets.

To varying degrees, all three teams now face unsettling questions about their futures. To wit: What do you do when you go all-in to be a contender and then don’t contend? The Lakers, Suns and Heat each did that for teams that ended up not being particularly good. All three went into the luxury tax, and all three are down multiple future first-round draft picks.

I have some bad news: It’s going to be difficult for any of them to get back into realistic contention from here, yet plausible rebuild strategies don’t really seem workable either, given the future picks owed. Thus, the scary part is that each team’s best move might be to double down on its bets even further, even if none are playing a great hand. But at what point do you take your money off the table (what’s left of it, anyway) and move on?

Before my analogy turns into a Kenny Rogers ballad, let’s drill down on each of the three further. I’ll take them one by one, starting with the most dire situation and progressing to the most optimistic (or, maybe … least pessimistic?) one.

Suns

Mat Ishbia is shattering all kinds of records for Impulsive New Owner Doing Stuff and Lighting the Next Decade on Fire. It’s hard to believe Phoenix’s new boss took over in February 2023; he had a good but flawed team built around Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Cameron Johnson that had no future draft pick obligations.

All he’s done since then is trade four unprotected first-round picks, four unprotected pick swaps, three swaps of the swaps and nine second-round picks, all in an effort to turn a second-tier contender into a champion. Other than Booker, the only roster player left from when Ishbia took over is Josh Okogie.

Let’s just say it didn’t go as hoped. The Suns used every available asset at their disposal and went $25 million into the luxury tax, and in the savage West, their reward was zero playoff wins. Building around a Booker-Bridges-Ayton-Johnson core and some depth guys wasn’t likely to yield championship parades — but it wasn’t going to lead to this either. Phoenix is screwed, a non-contender that might not even make the playoffs in next year’s loaded West, but one with no chance to rebuild effectively until the 2030s. The 2030s.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

A Suns sweep and what’s next: Frank Vogel’s status, Durant’s discomfort and more

So, uh … now what? It’s not like the Suns are terrible — they just won 49 games and will probably have two players make All-NBA — but going forward, they are spitting into a vicious headwind. Kevin Durant turns 36 in September, while Bradley Beal turns 31 in June and might have the worst contract in the league; aside from Booker and Durant, the only other player on the roster with any trade value at all is Grayson Allen, and he can’t be traded until October because of his recent contract extension.

The Suns are also massively handcuffed by the league’s rules on teams over the second tax apron. Those rules become harsher this year, as the teeth of a new collective bargaining agreement sink in. As long as they stay over the second apron, the Suns cannot aggregate salary in trades or take on more than they send out, and they are limited to signing minimum contracts in free agency. They also cannot send out cash in trades, generate trade exceptions or use the internet.

Even with those constraints, Phoenix’s payroll for next season could be breathtaking. Beal, Booker and Durant alone nearly put them at the tax line; their projected starting five alone will make $188 million. Plus, with their hand forced, the Suns seem almost pot-committed to overpaying free agent Royce O’Neale, just to keep his contract around for a salary match later in the year if nothing else.

How do you get out of this? Here’s one heretical angle to think about: Trading Durant to a cap room team for picks and a young player. It would get them out of salary-cap jail, resupply the player pipeline and still leave a decent team behind. They’re not getting four unprotected firsts back, but they can live to fight another day.

The obvious one, of course, would be to Oklahoma City for Josh Giddey and some other tchotchkes (Ousmane Dieng, Kenrich Williams and the 12th pick in the 2024 draft, perhaps?), but one can also envision a deal with Philadelphia (for Paul Reed, the 16th pick in the 2024 draft and an unprotected 2030 first) or Orlando (for Anthony Black, Jett Howard, the 18th pick in the 2024 draft and Orlando and Denver firsts in 2025). Detroit might be bat-crazy enough to want in on this too.

Setting that scenario aside, it gets pretty dull, pretty quickly. A more realistic Suns’ offseason endgame might just be morosely doubling down on this losing bet and hoping to scratch out 40-something wins; the problem in the NBA is that star players start looking for the exits when they sniff the rank odor of long-term decline seeping in. The Suns will actually have even more first-round picks to trade (they can send out a 2031 first and the 22nd pick in the 2024 draft), but the difficulty of matching salary could make it hard to convert, say, Nassir Little or David Roddy into anything consequential.

The Suns can at least take solace in the fact that Booker is just starting a four-year extension and seems to like Phoenix; the team has a floor as long as he’s around, and there’s enough high-end talent to maybe ride the treadmill to another middling playoff seed again. But the long term here is ugly, and even the short term seems only mildly interesting.

Lakers

When breaking down the Lakers’ season, it’s important to understand what an ordinary team this was despite it having two transcendent stars. As good as LeBron James and Anthony Davis are, the Lakers weren’t notably effective even when the two shared the court (plus-4.0 points per 100 possessions). Including playoffs and the Play-In, the team was 42-30 in the 72 games both played. This, mind you, was with near-pristine health from the best players; L.A.’s top four guys only missed 23 games all season.

The 2023 playoff run through a squishy portion of the West bracket may have allowed for too much optimism to seep in as the Lakers mostly ran it back with a team that won 43 regular-season games; that earned them 47 this season, with the same 0.6 net rating as a year earlier. They at least won the inaugural In-Season Tournament, but after that, their main impact on the season came as extras in Nuggets highlight videos.

The Lakers seem headed toward making coach Darvin Ham the sacrificial lamb for this. While nitpickers can hack away at some shortcomings (too much Taurean Prince, too much blaming injuries to random second-line players), it was jarring throughout the playoffs how little optionality he had with this roster. Only three players showed up for the Denver series, while the rules required him to play five; bigger picture, except for the mostly injured Jarred Vanderbilt, not one of their bench options would have been among the 12 best players on, say, the Golden State Warriors or New Orleans Pelicans. He auditioned them all too.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Lakers at a crossroads: What went wrong, what’s next with LeBron James, Darvin Ham

While replacing the coach is unlikely to do much beyond the margins, replacing all the awful bench players with halfway decent ones might. That’s the glass-half-full take: The Lakers had no playable backup center, no wing stopper and way too little perimeter shooting off the pine (one reason Ham clung to the Prince life raft a bit too readily) and still managed to win more than they lost. Similar to Phoenix, their top-heavy roster left them counting heavily on minimum or near-minimum guys who weren’t anywhere near good enough.

If they’re ever to recover from the post-championship mistakes of letting Alex Caruso walk and trading Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma for Russell Westbrook, this summer will be the best opportunity. The Lakers have a manageable cap situation, are likely to have their own first-round pick (New Orleans can take it or defer the choice to 2025, with smart money on the latter) and will be able to trade two future firsts (in 2029 and 2031) after the draft in addition to pick No. 17 this year.

James could opt out of his deal, but let’s assume for a minute he’ll be back (which seems to be everyone’s default assumption), possibly on a three-year deal that would pay him slightly less but allow him to add a no-trade clause.

The bigger issue in L.A. is whether the Lakers should use what assets remain in pursuit of a third star. I outlined in February the contours of a potential Trae Young deal, for instance, and that hasn’t really changed, nor has the noise gone away. As ever, the Lakers will be in the conversation for virtually every star player who expresses even a scintilla of unhappiness over the next two months.

But keep in mind, they’re limited by first-round picks and a lack of expiring contracts, and the tax apron will be a factor in any aggregation attempts. Additionally, D’Angelo Russell opting out of his $18 million deal for next season would take an important salary-matching piece out of the picture; he might opt out just for that reason, to have more say in his next destination. That’s one reason Young is a fixation; this might be the best they can do.

That ignores the bigger, more jarring question for L.A.: Is this team actually good enough to bother going all-in like this? The team is committed to chasing the short term through 2027, when it owes a first to Utah, but after that, anything goes. Do the Lakers really want to be surrendering picks in 2029 and 2031 to try to get this team somewhere above seventh in the West playoff pecking order? Or is it time to make a different bet?

The Lakers have more assets at their disposal than the Suns, but not by much. They could potentially use their nontaxpayer midlevel exception for another depth piece, but otherwise are leaning on minimum guys to fill out the roster and hoping for another healthy year from a nearing-40 James and Davis. Adding another star would help, but one wonders if a less radical makeover — such as a lower-stakes swap of this year’s draft pick and some aggregated unwanted salaries (name literally any bench player) for a genuinely starting-caliber two-way wing — could give them nearly as much short-term bite without the long-term downside of dealing two unprotected firsts that convey long after James has retired.

Either way, it’s getting harder to see a scenario where the sunset years for James are awash in team glory, unless the Lakers just kill it on minimum free agents. There are too many holes and no good young players aside from Austin Reaves, and the new CBA constraints make it difficult to backfill mistakes even in glamor markets.

Heat

Relative to the two other teams here, the Heat are in a better situation cap and asset-wise, but they’re also in a worse one on the court. That dream run to last year’s NBA Finals was incredible, but Miami has also been the eighth seed in the JV conference two years in a row. Not having Jimmy Butler or Terry Rozier against the Boston Celtics wasn’t helpful, but this was a completely one-sided series aside from the one game Miami hit 99 percent on jumpers.

Miami can still trade the 15th pick in the 2024 draft and a future pick in 2030 or 2031, but like the Lakers and Suns above, they need to ask questions about how long they might wish to play this game. The Heat are already over next year’s luxury tax line and might lose Caleb Martin to free agency; more notably, their best player turns 35 in September, hasn’t played more than 65 games in a season since 2016-17 and missed the playoffs with another injury.

Jimmy Butler is extension-eligible, but between his declining play this season and the constant absences, there are increasingly loud whispers that his future might not be in Miami. The Heat openly talking about Bam Adebayo as the keeper of the #HeatCulture flame and not mentioning Butler as much is another notable point.

Miami also is impacted by the tax apron, depending on who is on the team next year. The Heat have large contracts to put into a trade as matching salary and could pull something together with players such as Rozier, Tyler Herro or Duncan Robinson. The question is, at what cost?

One wonders if a more plausible endgame is a trade of Butler himself; moving his $48.8 million for next season would pare down an expensive roster and perhaps supplement it with additional pieces. Already, the youth cupboard isn’t bare with Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Nikola Jović, plus the Heat’s machine-like player development system turning random two-way dudes into playoff monsters. This could help kick-start a stealth rebuild around Adebayo and Herro.

On the other hand, if you’re trading Butler, the obvious questions are 1) Who is trading for him? 2) What are you getting back? and 3) How is that any better than the status quo?

Butler is great, but he isn’t a Durant or Paul George whom you just plug into any system and don’t sweat it; he’s more in the Trae Young category where he’s not everyone’s cup of tea and doesn’t fit every roster, especially with the age and contract. There are definitely teams that could and should want him, but it might be a more difficult sell than you think.

If Butler is back in Miami next year, the most obvious place to look for roster revisions is using one or two of the mid-sized contracts (Herro/Robinson/Rozier) with the 15th pick to acquire a plus-starter on the wing. That might be a middle ground that improves the roster short term and allows them to survive losing Martin but also keeps their future draft pick powder dry and lets them tread water until better options come along.

That said, the Heat might be in an even more difficult spot than the Lakers and Suns in the immediate future. Phoenix and the Lakers will each have two All-NBA players, if nothing else. The Heat are much shorter on star talent, especially offensively, which is why they finished 21st and 25th on offense the past two seasons.

At least we know they won’t be throwing their coach under the bus, unlike … some other teams. Erik Spoelstra is the best coach in the league and has the full support of Miami’s front office and ownership. He just might need to do some of his best work to get Miami to a sixth straight playoffs next year.

(Top photo of LeBron James and Kevin Durant: Harry How / Getty Images)





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