Exploring the make-or-break roster decisions that teams competing in the 2023 NBA Play-In Tournament will have to grapple with.
The NBA playoff picture will be complete soon as the Play-In Tournament determines the course of several franchises over three heart-pounding nights.
Here’s how it’ll all go down:
- The top six teams in each conference are locked into playoff spots. Teams that finished 7-10 in each conference are in the Play-In.
- The 7th- and 8th-place teams play each other Tuesday, with the Atlanta Hawks visiting the Miami Heat and the Minnesota Timberwolves taking on the Los Angeles Lakers. The winners become the No. 7 seeds. The losers play on Friday.
- The ninth- and 10th-place teams play each other Wednesday, with the Chicago Bulls playing the Toronto Raptors and the Oklahoma City Thunder taking on the New Orleans Pelicans. The winners play Friday. The losers go home.
- The losers of the 7-8 games play the winners of the 9-10 games Friday. The winners claim the No. 8 seed. The losers are eliminated.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here’s how this week’s series of knockout contests will impact these teams on a larger scale.
There are both good and bad elements for the Heat. They have big-game players who you wouldn’t really want to see in an elimination-type scenario in Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry, and Tyler Herro. Over the long-haul, though, Miami has been average — just a game over .500 since the All-Star break.
And that’s the team the Heat will run with moving forward, barring a transformational offseason trade, with more than $170 million already in guaranteed salaries for next season. Butler has two guaranteed years left for $94 million. Adebayo has three guaranteed years left paying about $104 million. Herro’s four-year, $120 million extension kicks in next season. Key role players like Gabe Vincent and Max Strus will require free agent raises this summer, and there’s no reason Victor Oladipo would decline his $9.45 million player option for 2023-24.
If this Miami team can’t make the playoffs now, how will it get better moving forward?
The Hawks have been the definition of mediocre this season, not going more than three games above or below .500 since early January. Quin Snyder replaced Nate McMillan as head coach, but the problem throughout has been the Trae Young–Dejounte Murray backcourt and whether the two really work together. In the 1,607 minutes across 67 games that the duo has been on the court together, the Hawks have only outscored opponents by 26 total points. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in their long-term future as a contending backcourt.
Young has three years and more than $128 million guaranteed left on his deal, while Murray is extension-eligible and a 2024 free agent. Something has to give there, whether it’s locking the duo in together or trading one of the two, potentially even Trae himself. The Hawks have seemingly been trying to trade John Collins forever, and De’Andre Hunter and Bogdan Bogdanovic are locked into long-term deals.
Is Atlanta content with being mediocre, or is a summer of seismic change on the horizon?
Los Angeles Lakers
The day after the trade deadline, the Lakers stood at 25-31. But after acquiring D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Rui Hachimura and shaking up a roster that badly needed to excise Russell Westbrook, Los Angeles is 18-8 since and have the West’s best record since the All-Star break, despite missing LeBron James for an extended period.
LeBron believes this team can win the title, and a win here would lock the Lakers into a tough first-round matchup against Memphis. A loss would mean that a win on Friday would set up a series with two-time defending MVP Nikola Jokic and Denver. Beyond this season, LeBron and Anthony Davis have one more guaranteed year left on their contracts before player options in 2024-25 and players like Beasley and Hachimura will expect offseason extensions. Will L.A. want to re-sign Russell or go after a free agent point guard like Kyrie Irving?
The vibes are good with the Lakers right now, but two losses this week would seriously sour this team’s short- and long-term future.
Soooooo, the Wolves made what seems like the worst NBA trade in quite some time when it acquired Rudy Gobert from Utah in the offseason. Team chemistry is now in shambles after he punched teammate Kyle Anderson on Sunday and Jaden McDaniels broke his hand punching a wall at halftime. Gobert has two more guaranteed years and just over $85 million left on his deal, with a $46.6 million player option in 2025-26 that he shouldn’t pass up.
Minnesota already has two franchise cornerstones in Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns. Edwards, the top pick of the 2020 draft, is a restricted free agent in 2024 and deserves a rookie max extension, but does he want to stay amidst all this dysfunction? And what about Towns, who missed most of this season due to injury? He has four years and $198 million left on his contract.
The rotation, aside from Naz Reid and Jaylen Nowell, will be back next season, but there are serious questions with this team’s core right now.
Instead of trading core players like Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby or Gary Trent, Toronto elected to not just stand pat, but add center Jakob Poeltl, a free agent after the season. Toronto went 15-11 after the trade deadline, but to what end? A Play-In spot and a chance to get drubbed by Boston or Milwaukee in the first round?
Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa are the only two core players who have two guaranteed years left on their contracts. Change is in the air in the Six. FVV and Trent will test the open market this summer, and the team will need to decide soon on Siakam and Anunoby. There isn’t much time left for Masai Ujiri and the Raps to kick the can down the road.
Instead of making a trade in February and dealing someone like DeMar DeRozan, Chicago went .500 after the deadline and are squarely in the NBA’s dreaded middle. Patrick Williams and Coby White will want contact extensions in the summer, and choices will have to be made with DeRozan, a free agent in 2024, and Nikola Vucevic, who could walk in July after a blockbuster trade with Orlando fizzled.
Alex Caruso has two years and $19 million left on his contract, but he seems like a luxury item for a non-contender. Injuries may prevent Lonzo Ball from ever playing again, but he has $20.4 million due next season and a 2024-25 player option for $21.4 million that Chicago may want to buy out at some point. Will this front office stay the course with this group, or cut their losses and rebuild?
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pels rode the roller coaster this year, starting 23-12 before dropping to 33-37 by St. Patrick’s Day. They’ve gone 19-26 since Zion Williamson last played and were 17-12 when the oft-injured bulldozer played. When he was on the court, he did average 26 points, seven rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game.
That production is extremely difficult to replace, but that’s what NOLA will have to live with as long as Zion, CJ McCollum, and Brandon Ingram are all locked up for four, three, and two more seasons respectively. In the short term, Herb Jones will require a contract extension and a huge raise, and the Pelicans will need to make smaller decisions on Jaxson Hayes and Josh Richardson. But the issues remain tied to Zion and his health, and will be for as long as he’s on this team.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are annoying to play, and that’s a compliment to a team pleasantly ahead of schedule at 13th in offensive efficiency and 14th in defensive efficiency. OKC’s four leading scorers, headlined by All-Star dynamo Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, are all 24 or under. Josh Giddey continues to improve, Lu Dort is now locked up long-term, and rookie Jalen Williams has been a revelation.
The Thunder are playing fun, loose, and with house money. They get 2022 No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren next season, hopefully healthy, and the only rotation player who may leave this summer is Dario Saric. The question now for Sam Presti is how he wants to play things out, with an absurd amount of draft capital at his disposal. Does he let this young core develop organically and make a swing for an elite player in the draft, or does he consolidate and acquire a top-level veteran and accelerate the franchise’s timeline? Unlike many other teams mentioned here, these are very fun choices to contemplate.
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