The goal of every NBA team is to matter, truly matter, from April through June. It’s a skill that is short-lived save for the all-time great players and franchises, and even those shelf lives have an expiration date.
NBA history is littered with teams that seemed poised to seize the crown, only to fall short and realize too late they had already peaked.
Free agency, the salary cap, and downright bad luck ends championship runs before they take off. As many as six teams – and maybe more -- this postseason could face that future. In this space, we’re addressing franchises boasting some combination of expectations, fruitless longevity and enormous potential for offseason change.
Here are the teams that face look-in-the-mirror moments should their playoff runs end in the first two rounds …
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Less than one year ago, the Celtics possessed the most enviable position in the league: a war chest of young talent, potentially high lottery picks, two returning healthy All-Stars and an experience-building run to the Eastern Conference finals.
Today the Celtics’ blindingly bright future is somewhat obscured. Kyrie Irving has hedged on his preseason commitment to remain in Boston. Gordon Hayward is just now showing some consistent play after his leg injury last season. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have, if anything, regressed after stepping up in 2017-18.
Persistent rumors say Boston would love to team disgruntled superstar Anthony Davis with Irving. But would Irving stay if the Celtics miss the East finals? If he does, is some combination of less valuable picks (the Sacramento Kings were far better than Boston anticipated this season) and Brown/Tatum enough to land Davis? If Irving does leave, would Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge be comfortable with a more youth-centric era that might need more seasoning before reaching another conference finals?
The Rockets may have suffered the most from Wednesday’s late-night musical chairs of playoff seeding. Houston drew a peaking defensive juggernaut (the No. 5-seeded Utah Jazz) instead of an undermanned No. 3 seed (Portland Trail Blazers) or an untested playoff squad (the No. 2-seeded Denver Nuggets). Advance, and the Rockets will likely meet the two-time defending-champion Golden State Warriors in the West semifinals.
Would such sour luck be enough of an excuse to convince Houston to simply run it back next season? James Harden isn’t going anywhere, but Chris Paul has missed more than 20 games each of the last three seasons -- and is also owed nearly $125 million over the next three. PJ Tucker, arguably the Rockets’ second-most indispensable player, turns 34 next month. Eric Gordon will be in the final year of his deal next season.
With Clint Capela their only likely source of youthful improvement, will the Rockets feel compelled to shake things up after five 50-win, Harden-led seasons?
Oklahoma City Thunder
After all the (deserved) Paul George Kia MVP buzz, the Thunder finished with one more win than last season. As statistically overwhelming as Russell Westbrook is, Oklahoma City has yet to crack 50 wins since Kevin Durant moved on.
That is not on Westbrook or George, the only two offensive weapons Portland should fear in the first round. The Thunder have seemingly always lacked at least one member of a truly threatening crunch-time five this decade. Yet with their payroll already above the tax line for 2019-20, the opportunity to improve is limited.
Thunder GM Sam Presti will try. Dennis Schroder was an imperfect-yet-still-preferable gamble to keeping a fast-fading Carmelo Anthony. Patrick Patterson and Markieff Morris seemed like perfect fits up front … until they stepped on the court. Will the Thunder continue their economic tinkering if they fall short again?
The brackets broke better for OKC than any other team, pitting it against a depleted Blazers squad in the first round and either a green Denver or a grey San Antonio in the West semis. If the Thunder lose to the Blazers, though, would they be content giving it another run next season?
It seems absurd for a recently baptized playoff team to face a crossroads. Yet the 76ers paved that path themselves with in-season trades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. Their starting five is the most talented outside of Oakland, and talent usually wins in the playoffs.
Still, Philadelphia finished the season 17-11 after acquiring Harris – and he and Butler are unrestricted free agents this summer. Sixers general manager Elton Brand has said he intends to keep that pair alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Yet for all their talent, the 76ers may very well be underdogs should they face the Toronto Raptors in the East semis. There should be no shame in losing in that round, but any window that includes max contracts for Embiid, Harris and Butler would be tight indeed. Would Philadelphia spend more judiciously if this squad prematurely bows out after going all in?
Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lilllard has quietly become a rare breed -- an All-NBA talent doubling as a universally admired franchise icon. Yet for all his individual accomplishments, Lillard has won just two playoff series in five years.
That’s not Lillard’s fault, as it certainly was not his idea to commit a combined $226 million to Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe, Mo Harkless and Meyers Leonard in 2016. Yet the Blazers have overcome that limiting offseason with a 53-win season behind Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic.
Portland is not the first team to see optimism cut short by rotten luck. With Nurkic out and McCollum only just returning from injury, the Blazers could lose to the Thunder in the first round. Would the Blazers be tempted to break up their high-scoring backcourt after a third consecutive first-round exit? Would a West semis run be enough to forestall that decision?
Many of those ‘16 signees see their contracts expire in ‘20. Would Portland be willing to give the Lilllard-McCollum duo one more run until then?
Hovering over the Raptors’ quietly impressive season is that their star player could be the most talented one-year mercenary in NBA history. Toronto knew Kawhi Leonard could bolt this summer, yet GM Masai Ujiri didn’t care. That attitude mirrors Oklahoma City’s similar gamble with George in ‘17.
Yet unlike the Thunder, the Raptors do not have an established All-NBA superstar to fall back if Leonard leaves. Leonard’s decision to leave becomes more interesting the deeper the Raptors advance.
Would he leave a team that falls in a hard-fought conference finals series or even The Finals? He has given zero indication one way or the other.
If Leonard does depart, the Raptors will be forced to play keep-or-sell on several rotation players. Marc Gasol could accept his $25 million player option for next season. Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and Fred Van Vleet comprise an additional $66 million in expiring money in ‘19-20. Danny Green is an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Without Leonard, do the Raptors immediately pivot around rising star Pascal Siakam? If so, how many of the veterans do they keep around him? For those that must go, will Toronto try to convert their expiring deals into younger/future assets?
Or will Kawhi lead Toronto to The Finals, decide to stay, and make all of this moot?